Finding the best place to weather the storm

13 10 2013

Ben Brangwyn

For obvious reasons, this essay by Ben Brangwyn from really resonates with me…..

This IPCC report is giving me that deja vu feeling, and it’s not good. Ben Brangwyn reflects.

Here’s how it was first time around. By the end of 2005, I’d learned enough about climate change and civilized societies’ addictions to fossil fuels that I was ready to run away from the potential collapse scenarios painted so graphically by websites with names like or

And I wasn’t the only one.

I was in a tightly-knit gang of three blokes going on this journey of self-education together, looking at peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye and come to our “Oh shit” moment together. We responded by engulfing ourselves in dreaming up potential escape plans, systematically analysing all countries of the world for key resilience factors: population density, amount of arable land, a culture accepting of Brits, potential impacts of climate change, levels of fossil fuel dependence. Improbably, the superbly researched CIA Factbook provided most of the data.

Turned out that New Zealand and the French Pyrenees were probably the best options. My wife and I went on a 3 week tour of this beautiful and resilient region of France, checking properties, looking at soil, watching watercourses, sussing out the local energy mix, feeling our way into the culture. Another of our group of three started the process of moving his entire family to New Zealand.

That’s worth repeating. He was so freaked out by the prospect of societal breakdown, he convinced his wife and two kids that New Zealand was the right option. They sold up in the UK, bought a farm in NZ and proceeded to apply permaculture principles and a lot of cash to bring it to offgrid standards.

Before he went to New Zealand, this friend came up with a propitious statement,

“And so we arrive at my core point. I strongly believe the choice between saving oneself or saving everyone else is a choice that one has to make now. As the probability of success of either option is low, devoting less than 100% dedication to the one you choose will almost certainly doom it to failure. I believe that one has to place one’s bet one way or the other. Hard choices.” 

So, within this small gang of three, what did the other two of us decide to do?

Well, we took our pal’s words to heart and decided to put 100% into helping “everyone else” at the biggest scale we could imagine, and about a year later, Transition Network emerged out of that decision.

Why am I mentioning all this now? Well, for me, the spectre of ecosystems collapse and its impact on us humans has never really receded. Keeping busy with Transition Network has helped me massively, and when busying myself wasn’t working well enough, either long bike rides or Joanna Macey seemed to do the trick. But this IPCC report is bringing some of these difficult emotions back. Not that I think the IPCC report is particularly accurate – I think they’re underestimating the impacts grossly with their scientifically cautious approach. Any deep dive into feedback mechanisms – which have been historically explicitly excluded from the IPCC reports – is likely to cause significant levels of personal consternation. But it’s not the contents of the IPCC report’s that bring back my sense of powerlessness. It’s the fact that it causes so little consternation and action at the government levels that hits me between the eyes. The IPCC report cycle means that every 5 years or so I’m reminded that the future of biodiversity on this planet is down to a small bunch of concerned citizens and some brilliant scientists, but not, by and large, the “elected officials” who have so many of the necessary resources at their disposal.

I’m not handling it very well, either. I’ve recently started surfing around those “3 hectares and a barn in the Pyrenean foothills for less than the cost of a season ticket for Manchester United” sites. I’m stressed by various governments’ talk about shifting money away from mitigation and into adaptation instead in a couple of years – a clear signal of giving up. I do methane calculations on the back of scrap paper. A couple of weekends ago I cycled a silly distance across the merciless hills of Dartmoor.

This really is an ongoing process for me, and I’m really not sure how I’ll feel by, say, 2016 about this all.

However, through all of this, I am reminded of what happened to the friend who had schlepped all the way to New Zealand and set himself up in the perfect offgrid property in one of the most resilient places on earth. Against all my expectations, he eventually brought his family back to England. Here’s how he summed up the reasons,

“It’s not that I’m any less convinced that we’re moving towards societal breakdown, it’s just that if I’m going to be thrown into the mire of collapse, I’d rather experience it with the people I love around me rather than in isolation.”

He’s learned the hard way that his circle of safety, resilience and connection was wider than his immediate family. That’s important, and I guess a pretty accurate statement of a key principle of transition – that building community is one of the smartest ways we can use our time right now, regardless of what unpredictabilities are coming down the line.

It’s a salutory tale, and one whose learnings I have to remind myself of more often than usual these days.