As you may know if you’ve been following this blog, I recently moved to the Isle of Man and started work here with the intention of staying long term. My family and I made the move for a number of reasons which I won’t bore you with, but let’s say that I have given considerable thought to the pros and cons of the Isle of Man as a bug-out location. “Bug out” is military / survivalist slang for a place of safety to go to in a time of danger or crisis, for example, war, civil disorder, financial crisis or food or energy shortage. Its counterpart, “bugging in”, is preparing for the danger or crisis while remaining in place, so technically I suppose that having bugged out, I am now preparing to bug in.
While you are reading this article, I want you to think carefully about how it compares with your own situation, and in particular, whether you think that you will be safe and / or happy staying in your current location for the next 20-30 years. If so, that’s great, you should continue forming and strengthening your community relationships, growing and storing food, installing solar panels, getting yourself in good physical shape and so on. If not, I would strongly urge you to start preparing to move somewhere else now. Please don’t leave it too late. It was relatively easy for me to move to the Isle of Man because there is only one of me, I only need one house and one job, and I could take my time over it and plan the move carefully. But if a crisis occurs and you find yourself competing with 100,000 other people for that one house and one job in the place you want to go to, it’s going to be a different story. We are in a period of relative calm right now, there are (more or less) adequate supplies of oil, food, water, jobs and houses, but we don’t know how long the present state of affairs is going to last.
“Too late” may come sooner than you think, and for some people, like the Iraquis and Syrians, “too late” has already arrived. Buying a house in Aleppo, Syria probably seemed like a sensible decision in 2010 because the property market was rising, there were lots of jobs, good schools for the kids, plenty of leisure and cultural activities, a strong and stable government, right? With the place now overrun by religious maniacs with Kalashnikovs, it doesn’t look like such a good decision with hindsight. Try to look at, not what a place is like now, but what it might be like in 20-30 years time and what might go wrong in the meantime. Follow the good advice of John Michael Greer and “collapse now and avoid the rush”.
Try to ensure that your home doesn’t become a “stranded asset” which Wikipedia defines as “an asset which has suffered from unanticipated or premature write-down”. This was a significant reason why I thought selling our home in rural Canada at this time and moving to the Isle of Man would be a wise move. Here’s the problem: a lot of people have invested a lot of money in their homes. They represent a large chunk of our net worth – but only so long as it’s possible to sell them to someone who is willing to buy them. Suppose you have a nice home in a rural area but there’s no public transport, it’s about 40 miles to your place of work and it takes you about an hour to drive there every day. Now suppose that the cost of transportation fuel rises significantly, or the Government introduces restrictions on the amount of fuel you can buy each week, or maybe the local gas station sometimes runs out of fuel altogether. That 1-hour drive becomes an 8-hour walk.
You start thinking that maybe you should buy an electric car. Strangely, everyone else has had the same idea at the same time, as a result of which the price has gone way up, there are long waiting lists for new ones, and ominous reports in the mainstream news about a worldwide shortage of lithium to manufacture the batteries. You start thinking that maybe you should relocate. However, at that point, nobody wants to buy your home for the same reason that you want to sell it: it is literally and metaphorically a stranded asset because you can’t get there in the absence of transportation fuel. At that point you have left it too late and your choices have narrowed down to either staying put, or walking away from it. What you should have done was to sell it before the crisis occurred, and while there were still people willing to buy it.
(Footnote: we bought an electric car earlier this year. More about the practicalities of these unusual vehicles in a future post).
So back to the Isle of Man. I am going to say some quite negative things about the Isle of Man, and after reading a few paragraphs of this you might be forgiven for thinking “if he hates the Isle of Man so much why doesn’t he go back to Canada?” But that’s not it at all. I have loved the Isle of Man since childhood, I think it has good long term prospects and I am simply being realistic. There is no such thing as the perfect bug-out or bug-in location, all of them have drawbacks and compromises, and I am going to list both the bad and the good things. If you have been following John Michael Greer’s blog posts in “The Archdruid Report” about the fictional post-collapse country of “Retrotopia” – well, the Isle of Man is a bit like that.
Let’s start with the basics. The Isle of Man is a large rock in the middle of the Irish Sea about halfway between England and Ireland. It is 32 miles long, 14 miles wide and its highest point, Snaefell mountain, rises to 2034 feet above sea level. It has a population of 85,000 of which about 37,000 live in the capital, Douglas, and the remainder live in smaller towns and villages scattered throughout the island. The islanders used to speak the Manx language, which is a form of Gaelic. Speaking the language has virtually died out, but the laws, place names on road signs and Government documents are usually written in both Manx and English. The symbol of the Isle of Man is three legs joined at the hip (a triskelion, an ancient Greek and Celtic symbol) and the motto is “Quocunque jeceris stabit” which is Latin for “Wherever you throw it, it will stand”.
Prior to Victorian times, the main economic activities were farming and fishing, particularly for herring, which were then smoked and turned into “kippers”, an island delicacy. There was also some mining of lead, silver, zinc and copper. Probably due to mismanagement of the fish stocks, the herring fishery around the island has practically died out. Kippers are still produced here, but the herring are mostly imported from Norway. All the mines closed long ago but they are still a tourist attraction.
In Victorian times, there was a great boom in the tourist industry, with tens of thousands of factory workers from Lancashire and Merseyside coming over on the boats for their annual holidays. A great deal of Victorian infrastructure was built, much of which is still operating today, such as steam and electric railways, horse trams, a water powered roundabout for children, a giant water wheel to pump water out of the mines, and hundreds of guest houses and hotels. People come here for “steampunk” themed weddings. However, the Isle of Man tourist industry declined in the 1970s with the advent of cheap air travel to warmer places.
Motorcycle racing is an important activity on the island, not on racetracks but on the public roads around the island, which are closed to normal traffic while the races took place. The races take place several times per year, the most famous (and dangerous) being the TT (“Tourist Trophy”) races every May / June.
The island operates in the shadow of the UK but is not technically UK territory, being instead a “Crown dependency”. Don’t worry if you don’t get the subtle distinction between these two: 99% of British people don’t get it either. What it means in practice is that the island has its own government and makes its own laws, which are usually very similar to UK laws but don’t necessarily have to be. In particular, the island was never part of the European Union and is therefore less affected by Brexit than the UK, although it will probably have some impact at some point. (Dang, I wasn’t going to mention Brexit again but I did – sorry about that.) The other big difference is that the island has significantly lower tax rates than most other places – a maximum 20% tax on income and no capital gains or inheritance tax. This in turn has led it to develop a large offshore financial services industry and online gambling industry which today make up a large part of the island’s economy. Officially, the island denies that it is a tax haven, but in reality that’s what it is.
If civilization as we know it collapses, I don’t think there will be much demand for tourism, motorcycle racing, offshore banking or online gambling. Unfortunately, as I have already mentioned, these activities make up most of the Isle of Man economy. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the island has been running a significant budget deficit for several years, spending about 20% more than it earns each year. (Greece, anyone? Or perhaps Iceland?). This is largely hidden from public view by smoke-and-mirrors accounting techniques, but basically the annual deficits have been funded from reserves, which are finite and rapidly depleting. This enables the Manx politicians to claim “we can balance the budget without borrowing”, even though it isn’t really true. Taking all of these factors into account, the wheels are likely to come off the Manx economy in a big way in about five years from now.
Manx politicians are mostly independents, with no affiliation to any political party. This is a good thing as it avoids much of the groupthink and cronyism which infects political parties. However, Manx politicians are just as deluded as politicians anywhere else when it comes to the economy, and talk incessantly about “growth” being the answer to all the island’s economic problems, or worse still, “sustainable growth”. There is no such thing as “sustainable growth”; if a thing is growing, it is not sustainable, and vice versa. There is no talk about how much growth we need, or what the goal or end-point should be, so I presume they are talking about infinite, perpetual growth. Which is strange, because if you stand on Snaefell summit you can see the entire island, and it is obviously a finite size and cannot support infinite growth.
The Manx electorate are little better. They don’t question their politicians about the infinite growth or the suspect finances, and probably they don’t really want to know. They tend to elect Manx-born politicians, regardless of their suitability for the job. Most of them would be happy to scrap the horse drawn trams and other elements of Victorian infrastructure because they slow down the road traffic.
Most of the Isle of Man’s energy, in particular gasoline, diesel, home heating oil and electricity, is imported from the mainland. A small amount of electricity is generated locally in a small waste-to-energy plant, gas turbine generator and hydroelectric generator, but these are a drop in the bucket. There is a lot of wind energy on the island which could be harnessed – after all, we are in the middle of the Irish Sea – but there is no appetite among the local population for building wind farms as this would spoil the view, and as far as I know there is not a single wind turbine on the island or offshore. So in the event of an interruption in the energy supplies from the mainland, most activity on the island would rapidly grind to a halt.
So those were a few negatives. Now for the positives. The Manx are a proud, independent and resourceful people, as implied by their motto “Wherever you throw it, it will stand.” There is also a strong community spirit. I therefore like to think that if there is a crisis, they will pull together and find a way through it, and I think it is very unlikely they will resort to looting shops or inflicting violence on each other.
The island’s isolation is an advantage. When the Romans occupied Britain they took one look at the rock on the horizon, thought “Fugeddaboudit” and didn’t bother coming here. I hope other would-be invaders will take the same view. The same goes for refugees – about which I will say more in my next post. The coming crises of the 21st century will probably generate hundreds of millions of economic, environmental and conflict refugees who will criss-cross the world in all directions looking for a safe haven. The current war and refugee crisis in Syria is only a foretaste of things to come. Only the most determined and resourceful will make it to the Isle of Man, because the Irish Sea is a tricky stretch of water to cross at the best of times, even with a good boat, and once here it’s impossible to remain inconspicuous.
The Isle of Man has no natural resources which can be dug or drilled up and carried away. We are therefore unlikely to suffer the “resource curse” experienced by other countries which are rich in gold, silver, oil or diamonds. The presence of resources like these has made life miserable for many generations of indigenous poor people in Africa, South America and the Middle East, as powerful invaders fight over them. We have a lot of sheep here, but if you are an invading army backed by an arsenal of missiles, drones and nuclear weapons, you are probably looking for more than sheep. For an example of what a resource curse looks like, check out this article about a proposed fracking well near a village in North Yorkshire, UK.
It rains a lot here – the mountains attract rain-bearing clouds – so we are unlikely to ever have to worry about supplies of fresh water. Nor do we have to worry too much about sea level rise, as we can just move a few feet further inland and further up the slopes of the mountains.
In a crisis, the Victorian steam-powered and water-powered infrastructure could once again be put to good use – provided the islanders haven’t stupidly got rid of it and thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
Like many other places, the Isle of Man has overshot its carrying capacity due to population growth, and there are more people currently living here than can be supported by local food and energy resources. This is a cause for concern, but I believe it could be addressed if the Manx people and their politicians had the will to do it. If there was an economic downturn such that the offshore banking and online gambling sectors were no longer viable, most of the people involved in those industries would probably leave the island, reducing the total population. I don’t think that would be any great loss, because the main activity of both industries seems to be moving digital money from one computer folder to another, which doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly useful or productive activity. If the herring are fished less intensively, the stocks will recover. If the islanders can get their heads around the necessity of generating their energy locally, wind farms could be developed to generate electricity, and more land could be turned over to managed forestry plantations to produce wood for home heating. All of those things are possible, but to make a smooth transition into a renewable food and energy future, we should be doing them now, or better still, we should have started them 20 years ago.
I would be interested in hearing from readers how you view your current situation and whether you are planning to move or stay put. In 20 years from now, do you think you will have more in common with a Syrian or a Manx?
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin