The Ermine household took itself to the West country at the beginning of the year, for a time of rest, and reflection on the year passed and the year to come. The culturally preferred way of doing that in the UK is to get hammered on the last day of the old year and welcome in the new with a humdinger of a headache and hazy recollections of indiscretions. Nothing wrong in that in itself, but it gets tougher on the constitution as you get older 😉 So happy new year to y’all if you’re still here!
It so happened that Mrs Ermine wanted to go the the Oxford Real Farming conference. That’s an alternative to the conventional Oxford Farming Conference, where Owen Paterson told the assembled mass of agri-business that he was going to pay for PR to convince the recalcitrant refuseniks of the Great British Public that GM food is good for them. Really it is. I’ve offed the GM rant to later as it isn’t the main topic here.
So we stayed at a lovely campsite near Oxford for a couple of days. Oxford looked pretty much like it did three-and-a-half decades ago when I went up there for an interview, only the tourists have changed,
Wandering around the city you can practically smell the old money oozing from the stones
Then it was time to move on, to Glastonbury in Somerset, for a period of reflection on the year past and the years to come. The weather was kind to us – we were prepared to eat the cost of a lost booking if the weather had turned all snowy, since our FWD camper van is back-heavy and handles poorly in the snow. We had a lovely few days in a magical environment, though I fear a 1970s revival seems on its way by some of the garb on show.
We stayed at a self-catering cottage near the town, and ate well from the slightly off the beaten track greengrocer and the fine town butcher, both near the market cross.
Although it’s ringed by the usual rash of out of town shopping and supermarkets, the people in the town have enough non-clone-town concerns to support a decent number of shops, and not the usual rash of casinos (not one I recall) and charity shops that infest the hollowed-out High streets of many market towns.
You can’t really talk about Glastonbury without a reference to the eponymous Tor so here it is. It’s still a right grunt to get up it, though it is easier now than it has been for me in the past.
One of the joys of this holiday is we rented a really characterful stone cottage in nearby Butleigh that dated from the 1500s, though we had the advantages of modern plumbing and electric heating. There was a wood stove in an enormous inglenook, but this was more for the atmosphere than a useful source of heat as it was leaky as hell and tiny. It made me appreciate the quality of my own wood stove, but hell, it added character and we had electric heating to do the real work 😉
So where’s the personal finance angle? Well, it was also a good time to look back at six months since leaving work, what happened, what is likely to happen, where I want to go.
what happened since leaving work
- I lost some weight. That is not a bad thing. I haven’t consciously tackled this, it seems that the stress while working had negative physical effects.
- I drink less coffee – often just in the morning. Hell, I can even code without it, despite it being the software writer’s legal drug of choice.
- I drink a little bit less booze. Okay a lot less compared with the immediate end of my working life. That stress thing again I guess 😉
One of the things that became clear, is that I started my journey unprepared, particularly psychologically. I had expected to get to 60, retire normally and get on with life. In 2009 I discovered I needed to do that 8-11 years short. In times of need the Ermine will fight, and so I chose to fly into the storm, accept the rotten work environment but save madly.
Unwisely I assumed that the primary risks were financial, that I would be kicked out. In retrospect this was not the case. I had already accumulated significant capital, unlike everybody else in Britain is seems I paid down my mortgage rather than going on holidays and buying cars with the increased house prices. And indeed lived significantly below my means, accumulating capital in terms of housing and some shareholdings, as well as the usual rainy day fund. I measured this against income, but in fact it makes more sense to measure it against outgoings, which made it bigger in effect.
The financial risks were overblown. I could probably have made it bailing in 2010, because I had projected my outgoings to be the same as while at work. A life retired is one where you can take joy in things that are free and low cost, those which take an investment of time, or improving skills, becoming self-critical and honing one’s art rather than searching for the technological quick fix or having to pay over the odds to pack everything into the weekend.
One of the gifts that not working has done for me is that I can aim to do things with respect, or not do them at all. When I was working I had to do all sorts of things ‘just because’. I couldn’t respect anything to do with the stupid performance management system. WTF is the point of a performance management system – my performance showed in what I did. The back of house guys in the Olympics could see what was going on in real time, because of the efforts of me in high-level design and the subcontractors in mid and low-level and getting boots on the ground. I didn’t need some stupid prick ticking boxes or not. And indeed all due respect to my last and final line manager who got the balance on this right, it was the previous one who was the box-ticking prick. But I had to do PM, ‘just because’ some management consultant twits on an MBA said that was the way to do things. Where the hell were these guys when the West was built, funny how they only showed up as it is being lost!
There are very few things I have to do just because somebody says so now. So when I do something, I try and take time, to address the job in hand, reflect a few moments, and then engage properly, indeed to live intentionally. Whether it’s roasting a chicken, cutting a piece of wood or designing a piece of kit. While working I sleepwalked like an automaton through stuff that needed to be sleepwalked through, but also through things that needed to be done with respect.
I missed two risks. No man is an island, entire of itself. In flying into the storm of organisational values that had become so disconnected from mine, the Ermine’s brilliant white pelt was tainted as I had to run with some of the stupidity and pretend to agree with what I believed to be arrant rubbish. I paid for being so at odds with the values New Lean and Mean Firm. Overtly, by nearly being ejected for struggling after parting the ways with DxGF. And covertly, because in retrospect pretending to be something I wasn’t for so long seriously damaged my physical and mental health.
In 2007 I came to Glastonbury with a couple of pals. And failed to climb the Tor, I got too out of breath and abandoned the attempt. Which is piss poor, the path rises 80m in about 400m linear distance. Now I can’t say that I raced up it this time but I was okay, stopped a few times to gather strength but the recovery was a couple of minutes, not tens of minutes then fail as it was five years ago. And not too many people overetook me 😉 . I am sure that Mr Money Mustache would consider that a really low grade performance but I’m not him, I’m probably twenty years older. And I don’t have the physical fitness fetish. Decent for my age is what I want. His original weight target is what I’d like, it’s roughly what I weighed at 21, and at least it isn’t so bad I’d have to lose half my body weight to get there. I have absolutely no comprehension of why he wants to become heavier. Good luck to him, I’m sure he’ll get there by the end of the year!
I want to be able to cycle up the grade from Tuddenham on an ordinary road bike at more than walking speed without feeling like shit for fifty yards afterwards. I’d like to be able to cycle from Ipswich to Minsmere and back again. Pumping iron and being able to lift cars single handed – nah. Life’s too short for that, even if doing that makes it a little bit longer. Each to their own.
So much for physical health, but not living my values cost me mental health too, it robbed me of hope and fire to illuminate my world, to choose life and direction. When I left, I gained by the removal of much of what was wrong. It looked good, and for some time I did not miss the hole – the absence of agency and direction that should have been there but wasn’t. I followed the originally designed financial plan, but the greatest fear was running out of money. So, like an unconscious pilot slumped at the controls, the plane to run on autopilot, and it did well ,the original flight plan was sound. I tried to wrestle against my net worth falling, but that was a fight I can’t win. By various synchronicities events conspired to make it look as if I could win, but it won’t be possible in the medium term. It doesn’t need to be, I don’t need to satisfy Micawber’s rule over the next few years, and my original plan did not demand that. It had two requirements – that I should not run out of cash, and that I allocate my ISA allowance each and every year for several years to come.
Hope is a fragile thing. DW played for time, and guided the inspirationless ermine across the gap until the spark of the internal flame could strike and hold again. There are times in life when one must be prepared to fall back and fall back until somewhere, like Albert Camus in Return to Tipasa, in the midst of winter you learn of the invincible summer that lies within. Somewhere in Glastonbury this happened. It is time to ease back into the pilot’s seat and survey the controls. Not necessarily time to do anything yet, but to look and see if anything has changed that the flight plan needs to take into account.
My personal objection to GM food isn’t that it’s bad for you. I mean, some variants will no doubt turn out to be bad for you and/or the environment in general. But there’s plenty of regular millennia old stuff out there that’s bad for you. Try making wine out of ivy or eating foxglove, or most fungi. Plants are aggressive bastards, out to kill you with strong poisons[ref]if you have ever tried eating red kidney beans without boiling the suckers for ten minutes you get to know this up close and personal. I saw the results in a student flat when one guy sampled a couple of red kidney beans on the stove. The results were dramatic, he didn’t make it to the bog before chundering violently[/ref] in the fight for Darwinian supremacy. Vegetables have feelings too and don’t actually want to be eaten by great hairy apes. Fortunately a whole host of humanity has gone before to ID or learn how to cook the nasty stuff. We didn’t need GM to make a mess of the environment – DDT, the non-decaying plastics waste choking the oceans, there’s more than enough mess made perfectly conventionally.
No, for me the trouble with GM is it amplifies a really sucky power structure- GM is merely the extreme end of it. Farming in the West is already enormously over-leveraged, and GM concentrates power in the hands of companies who, basically, want to have us all over a barrel – eliminating historical ways of farming by skewing the regulatory framework in their favour [ref]Big Ag has previous history here – for instance the EC seeds directive – people used to save seeds and sell them to each other or trade, as humanity has done for thousands of years. You haven’t been allowed to do that for years in the EU, because of the EC Seeds directive, favouring the big seed firms as you are only allowed to sell standard seed varieties and the cost of testing is prohibitive for the small guys. The EU has lost heritage varieties that aren’t big-commercially viable but have a place in smaller scale agri-/horti-culture and often taste better but keep less well. For instance The Cox apples I scrumped in Kent as a child tasted better than the same variety from Tesco, if you can find the remnants of the old orchards that used to be widespread there you can test this for yourself later in the year ;)[/ref] . Corporate greed and power struggles are rife in the Western food chain, look at the perennial battle between the supermarkets and Big Ag in the UK. Big Ag never shows its face as Big Ag, of course, in search for a place on the teat of Government subsidy. The subsidies skew incentives, and favour the large at the expense of the small, because the compliance overheads are a larger part of a smaller operations’ costs. So there’s an unholy mix of entrenched interests, Government pork, regulation, regulatory capture by the entrenched interests, all trying to get ahead at somebody else’s expense.
Enter GM into the mix. It’s the ultimate economic moat – do things our way and pay our GM seed rent. Else you don’t get to eat. And allowing that to happen in food is a very dangerous thing indeed. Don’t like Sky TV? Don’t use it, you can live without TV. Humanity isn’t going to give up eating any time real soon, and having Monsanto and its ilk with a stranglehold over the food supply makes me very uneasy. In the end this comes down to gut feel for me – I don’t trust them to behave, and I expect GM interests to suborn the regulatory structure to make itself the only game in town. It is the power that I fear, not the technology in particular. When you’ve got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.
Having Owen Paterson in direct cahoots with the industry is a classic case of regulatory capture. Mrs ‘GM lobbyist’ Caroline Spelman was bad enough but saved from doing too much harm by her political incompetence, Paterson is a wilful hazard to the environment and ideologically pro Big Ag. In his speech to the WI you’d think all was well in Paradise, that our supermarket food doesn’t taste of bugger all due to the loss of essential elements and the elimination of soil microbial action, and because we are so blindingly clever breaking the recycling of nutrients that served life on Earth for millions of years doesn’t matter one whit. Oh and the reason we are all becoming fat bastards is not that there might be something wrong with our food but that Sky TV is so fascinating that we forget to get out of bed.
I’m all for labelling GM foods and letting the marketplace decide, but I am also not for letting them skew regulation in their favour by disallowing previous tried and tested methods and getting stooges into government, the previous Environment Secretary ran a firm lobbying for biotech, FFS!
As an example of where Big Ag is pretty nasty, take for instance the crass US practice of washing ground beef with ammonia to kill off the E. coli, because basically there’s shit in the meat as the memorable quote from Fast Food Nation told us. Did we always have shit in our meat? No. How did people avoid getting shit in the meat in the past? The squeamish should perhaps jump to the next paragraph, because there’s no really good way to say this, but you cut around the critter’s anus, drop the intestines out intact all the way up to the upper reaches of the alimentary canal, cut off and lose in the waste. If you screw up and burst the guts, you get to know about it real fast because the smell isn’t to be ignored, and you get to throw that attempt out and start again on a fresh carcass. Or go hungry or turn vegan, as is your wont.
Anyway, those kind of skills are too expensive to sit easy on the shoulders of capitalism when the moneymen are in charge and in search of increased production, well for fast food prices anyway, rather than a New York artisanal deli. In living proof that human ingenuity is alive and well though that it sometimes has no soul or respect for its fellow man when it comes into contact with money the response of one firm being caught out washing their beef in ammonia and water is to sue the shit out of someone for drawing attention to the unsavoury practice, rather than taking the shit out of the meat. D’oh.
It’s not an isolated case. Industrial meat production is slap-happy, chasing the buck. F’rinstance. I don’t have a problem eating horse, as long as I am told that I’m eating a horse-burger, as I was in France. It’s apparently a taboo food in the English speaking world so here we feed it to dogs and cats instead[ref]interestingly we (possibly more in the US than the UK) also seem to feed dogs and cats from shelters to dogs and cats. In general cannibalism is a really bad idea, for the flippin’ obvious reason that species-specific parasites go back into the food chain of the same species. That just doesn’t sound good to me, but anything to make a fast buck, eh, even if it means feeding Fido and Tiddles to…er Fido and Tiddles. At least industrial food processing doesn’t just pick on humans to cut the corners[/ref] British families might be surprised to find out that industrial meat processing is so casual that they could end up eating beefburgers that are a quarter horseflesh. Now you have to ask yourself just how you feel about industrial agriculture that either can’t recognise the species of what’s coming in through the door or is so craven as to cut its beefburgers with something its customers irrationally would prefer not to eat in order to cut costs. Do we really trust it with a massive strategic direction-shift in how humanity feeds itself in future? And tolerates shit in the meat because it makes it cheaper?
So my, er, beef, with GM isn’t in the technology per se, but the temptation for bad financial incentives to result in really bad outcomes, like BSE and not being able to feed ourselves in future because some company wanted to make more money. In finance bad incentives lead to the odd finacial crash, shedloads of people out of work, loads of moaning. Get it wrong with GM and humanity doesn’t get to eat for a while. Get it really wrong and it doesn’t get to eat again. Ever. At the moment these perverse incentives lead companies to a) patent life as if it were their own work rather than the 4.3 billion years of prior art getting here and b) then shifting the regulatory framework so that the old, original techniques are outlawed – because though they were safe on traditional products they aren’t safe on the new ones.
One day the USDA will mandate you wash carcasses in ammonia to counter E. coli because it is the only way Big Ag found to deal with its sloppy mass-production slaughtering. Those rules would be handed down, even if you wrung the neck of the chicken on site, gutted it and handed it to your customer in person so they know for dead certain sure there’s no shit in the meat, because that protruberance on their face between and below the eyes would let them know, big-time. You wouldn’t be allowed to do that, ‘cos rules is rules. In the UK Environmental Health and the Meat Hygiene Service of course set the rules for the big manufacturers.
The regulatory overhead eliminated small and medium sized slaughterhouses in the UK, because the big guys made the rules. It wasn’t always like this, BTW – up to the 1970s agricultural research was done by government not by Big Ag. Now it’s done by Big Ag, and while I don’t have a problem with that in itself, he who pays the piper calls the tune/gets the results they want. If those results aren’t forthcoming, they get to suppress the results they don’t want, ‘frinstance they might dsicover that you don’t get shit in the meat if you follow 1,000 years of human slaughter methods but now do with the new methods. Suppress that result, hey presto, there is shit in the meat of everything you test, so you have to wash it in ammonia/pasteurise/do whatever to combat the omnipresent E. coli.
Which is why I don’t want to see GM promoted by the government unless the research is funded by an independent trust that publishes all its research on the internet for free. This government already has bad form with GM. It hired Caroline Spelman [ref]Grauniad [/ref], of Spelman and Associates, a PR firm for GM companies[ref]now dissolved[/ref], as Environment Secretary before her incompetence became too big to ignore. I objected to my local MP regarding the obvious conflict of interest, who didn’t even have the decency to acknowledge the letter, yes, Ben Gummer, I’m looking at you.
And if Monsanto et al wants to do GM using proprietary techniques that they consider trade secrets or commercially confidential then let them do it in a sterile environment with full biosecurity against anything escaping. Surrounded by another one run by an open public organisation to standards determined by scientists not finacially involved in GM and no history of it, both at the proprietary secret holder’s cost. If GM is so great, that won’t be a problem economically, but it’ll contain the risks – it’s our only home that’s at risk! Unlike ordinary pollution, which even in Chernobyl quantities remains limited to the original release, biopollution has a specific much greater hazard associated with it. It is designed to breed and multiply and involve other forms of life!
Big Money is great for all sorts of things and no end of innovations. But it’s our vittles and our environment they’re screwing with, and if they’re not prepared to open up to full public scrutiny and regulation then let them screw with it in a secure and isolated environment.
I don’t want to lose our tried and tested methods of feeding ourselves. Yes, for a lot of the time life was brutish, but should some catastrophe befall industrial society then there’s still some hope for humans to continue. Industrial agriculture has done a fantastic job in increasing output, but it has failed in many ways at increasing quality. Food tastes of jack shit from most of industrial agriculture, because modern agriculture uses the soil almost as an inert medium, with fertility imported from fertilisers.
The cycle of microbes breaking down rocks and minerals, others recycling organic material and working with the plants to mutual assistance with other agents like the earthworms, this cycle has been broken in most industrial farming. At the moment it delivers volume. But it isn’t sustainable, it demands energy and transport, and the nutritional value and trace elements fall as these are mined out of the soils and are not replenished[ref]Guardian and a copy of the original[/ref].
This unsustainability trashes the soil. The first results of the Green revolution must have looked fantastic, because they were adding fertility to healthy soils that were biologically active. Nowadays pretty much all fertility, anything that goes to make up your veg (and indirectly your beef) comes from outside the soil.
It wouldn’t be a big deal if it didn’t affect our food. Maybe there’s a case to be made that it’s more desirable to have more food than have it taste of something, in a world where it needs to sustain more humans. Let’s see what it has done to the output.
Looking at that [ref]pinched gratuitously from http://www.mineralresourcesint.com/docs/research/NutritionandMentalHealth.pdf p 19[/ref] it makes me glad that I assembled my flesh prior to 1978, though presumably some of these are leached out over time and I believe animals recycle the components of most of their cells. Although healthcare is better now I wouldn’t like to be responsible for feeding a baby to coming of age on the products of modern agriculture even if I were a Guardian-reading granola-eating Waitrose shopper. Perhaps this is why so many of us are fat as we trough into this denatured forage in search of the essential components that used to be present in our food.
It’s funny how you look at pics of ordinary people in the 1950s and I would say that while modern faces usually look more attractive[ref]I’m a guy, so I look at the women in making that subjective comment. I’m not sure that modern male faces look more attractive than those of previous generations, but it’s not my area of expertise. To my eyes male faces look less masculine than those of previous eras[/ref] but my, you don’t see too many overweight people in those photos! GM boosters would say we can fix that. Maybe they can, though unless they have found the secret of cold fusion or the alchemists’ Philosopher’s Stone they can’t create elements in situ, so these have to be mined and refined and added to the farm inputs synthetically. It’s another step away from sustainability, crafting a delicate structure that relies on human control of the variables, the function Nature used to do for us. It’s another step away from sustainability, and a big step away from resilience.
Human empires have risen and fallen, and we cut our food off from the natural world at our peril. Industrial civilisation is at its high point, but there will come a time when it will look like the statue of Ozymandias. That’s when we will feel the force of the arrogance in breaking the cycle, as our descendants try and wrest food from the lifeless denatured and damaged soils that have become deserts in the absence of technologically imported fertility. At least they probably won’t have shit in their meat…
For about as diametrically opposed a viewpoint to this one take a look at Matt Ridley’s Precision editing of DNA which I slightly extrapolate to his anticipation of Peak Farmland – as a good thing, meaning we won’t need any more as opposed to we haven’t got any more. I really hope he’s right, for the sake of your children and their descendants food supply. I don’t believe he is right, but I still hope he is!