Archive for October, 2006

More on Exceptionalism

Sharon October 13th, 2006

My last post got some interesting responses, and I think it would be useful to discuss them a bit more, in part perhaps because I may not have been fully clear, but also because I think this whole concept of exceptionalism is a delicate subject.

Deb’s comment, that believing that you have the right policy strategies is, in fact, a kind of theory of exceptionalism is both true and untrue. It implies that your ideas are exceptional - in the sense that they are more right than other people’s ideas. But I don’t think believing that you have better policy plans than other people implies a theory of moral exceptionalism (btw, I was being somewhat ironic when I used the phrase “we who know better”). While Deb is absolutely right that no strategy will ever be perfect for everyone, it is also the case that we do need policies on every level of government for responding to peak oil. And yes, I think my ideas, and the ideas I admire are better than other people’s ideas. I think this for several reasons. First of all, I’m not a moral relativist - while I think that human beings are all pretty similar, I don’t think all ideas or schools of thought are equally good. Some of them are quite bad, in fact. Second, I don’t think that because policy can’t perfectly respond to everyone’s needs that we’re better off without it - people can articulate their needs, and help refine it.

I do think that a proposal like the Community Solutions Plan C (my own views are similar, if not exactly identical) or Heinberg’s Powerdown have significant merits, and one of them is that they meet the criteria of “what if you are wrong.” A solution that imagines us making enormous investments in alternative energies risks causing a disaster if peak oil and the associated economic problems are closer than we think, or if we rely on technologies, such as carbon sequestration, that are neither proven nor safe within any margin of error. But a scenario in which we engage in voluntary curtailment and relocalization has a number of virtues - if we’re wrong, say, about peak oil, we’re still probably right for the purpose of social justice and climate change. And the allocation of resources to social welfare, rather than to creating private wealth is something that can be changed if it turns out we’re richer than we think we are.

I think Deb raises a good point - there’s a level of arrogance and hubris (I’ve got a good bit of both) inherent in believing you know what is best for the nation and the world. And yet, someone has to do it. I think my ideas (which aren’t really so much mine, but the ideas of better and smarter people like Pat Murphy, Richard Heinberg, Julian Darley, etc…) are better, and I’d rather see them implemented than the ideas of most of those presently in power. But it is hubris, and if the stories of greek mythology turn out to be true, I’ll be changed into some animal and chased across the earth if I’m wrong ;-).

RAS’s point is, I think, especially well taken. The psychological weight of learning that your lifestyle can’t last is traumatic. Personally, I think these traumas are best handled by finding lots of useful work to do, and lord knows, there’s plenty. But if the emotional consequences of understanding peak oil are too traumatic, they can be immobilizing. There’s a website out there that I’ve criticized in the past - I think they encourage you to find peak oil depressing. But I’m famously skeptical of the theraputic model, being a therapist’s child. So for those who come into contact with peak oil and can’t go any further, you might check out That said, however, I think that the psychological element will to some degree receed when more people are peak oil aware - that is, I think that when “everyone is doing it” the emotional trauma of peak oil, or the capacity for denial will simply change. Families who think they have too much going on to address peak oil will suddenly find they have a little spare time to make sure their kids get to grow up. Peak oil is deniable precisely because it is a minority viewpoint - but not, I think, for very long.

I agree with most of what Dougii says, although I think you misunderstand me when I say what matters is what you believe. I believe that actions are what matters (in fact, that’s a basic tenet of my religion - Judaism presumes that actions, rather than intentions, are what is judged and what matters) - but you cannot act persuasively towards others if you believe that the general population is made up of people whose personal greed or selfishness would prevent them from ever learning what is necessary. Your actions are shaped by how you think and what you believe.

The next step, if we are to change the world, is to make what is necessary to address peak oil into the public agenda for the nation. My personal preference is to do so from the bottom up - as a grassroots movement that is open to as many people as possible - not just historical liberals, but the new environmentalists arising from conservative Christian movements, traditional American patriots who value America, and believe that America can lead the world - this time into sustainability and justice, and every ordinary person. We can’t rely on counter-culturists - we have to create a collective culture. And if we’re going to do that, we need a big tent, and a general message, and a way for ordinary people to act. Then we wait for the “leaders” to catch up.


Theories of Exceptionalism

Sharon October 9th, 2006

One of the things that drives me crazy is the constant statement that we all know that people (or Americans, or first worlders, orwhatever subset of “people” we’re talking about today) will never voluntarily change their lifestyles. Usually this is said by someone who has changed their own lifestyle towards greater sustainability and conservation, and is said of the rest of the people out there, who, it is either explicitly claimed or presumed as a functionof the conversation, are simply too stupid and greedy to ever voluntarily change.

But believing that most people won’t change their lifestyle implies a theory of exceptionalism - that we who know better are better people, more moral, smarter, wiser, more compassionate, nicer, probably prettier too. We good people who know about peak oil and conservation, we are wise and noble, and the rest of the hoi polloi are disgusting morons, wallowing in their own excess. Well, frankly, I think that’s a load of garbage, and a kind of self-aggrandizement, rather than anything useful. Because let’s be honest - much as we’d like to believe it, we’re no different than anyone else.

Or at least I am - I’m capable of a full range of stupidity, foolishness, selfishness, greed and pettiness. I have lied, cheated and stolen in my lifetime. I have been mean and ugly and cruel and done harm by both action and omission. Now I’m sure some of you have fewer sins than I, but I’m guessing you have your share too. So unless you choose to go with the “I’m noble and everyone else is crap” theory of humanity, then you must believe that regular people are capable of change. Because if *we* did it, so can others. If we changed our lifestyle voluntarily, because we wanted to and thought it was the right thing to do, or the thing that would give us the most happiness and security, other people must be subject to the same kinds of suasion. If we care about ethics more than personal comfort and privelege, so must other people. So why don’t they?

Well, to a large degree, the issue is probably lack of comprehension. Virtually everyone on this list had a time when they too lived a normal life, standard to their nation (there are some exceptions, but they are mostly exceptions), class and culture. And they change their minds.

I know hundreds of people personally who have made a dramatic change in the conventional lifestyle and there are many thousands more who are acting, because of peak oil or global warming, or theories of justice or some other reason, from conviction and necessity. Those thousands, are of course, a drop in the bucket - but they are also potentially a beginning, the first step in a long, collective journey of cultural self-transformation. What matters is how we view ourselves, and what we believe we can accomplish. There is no fundamental difference between myself and anyone else, except that I have a little more information.

The issue is one of understanding, persuasion, and cultural pressures. And those are things we can work on. But any account of peak oil that begins with something like the statement “We all know that no one will do X until they have to” has lost me right there - because we don’t all know that. Some of us may choose to believe it, because it is easier tobelieve that than to do what they would have to do to help others understand, or because they enjoy feeling exceptional. But it is not the truth, and not a starting point. We cannot begin to transform the world until we acknowledge that we as a people are ripe for transformation, and need only a catalyst to move on.


I’m not a crier…

Sharon October 5th, 2006

I can’t think of another public event, since the two people jumping out of the twin towers hand in hand, that made me want to cry. But this one did.

So ask yourself - am I raising my children to have that much courage and selflessness? Do I have it myself? Am I raising my children to love their neighbor as they love themselves? If not, why not?

No, me neither. But we should be looking to learn what they know and we do not. I pray no one else’s children will ever need that kind of courage - but wouldn’t you want your children to have it, in the terrible event it were necessary.

If you pray, pray for their families.


A Wonder Is What It Is

Sharon October 4th, 2006

_A Warning To My Readers_

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.
-Wendell Berry

The first time I ever wrote anything good, I didn’t realized I’d done it. I got mad. I had a history teacher in 9th grade, and he didn’t like anything I did. I’d always done well in history, and I loved to read history. But I couldn’t figure out what this man wanted (sadly, I can’t remember his name - and I owe him a great deal). He’d have us read pieces and answer the questions, and I’d answer them, and he gave me Cs. And I got more and more frustrated - I was reading. I was giving the obvious answers - it never occurred to me he didn’t want the obvious answers, because every single other teacher I’d ever had did. And then he gave me a section in a book about ancient Greece to read, that argued that the ancient Greeks didn’t value manual arts, and crafts. And the piece based that argument in part on the fact that the Greek god of the forge, Haphaestus, was always pictured as dirty and ugly and crippled. Well, it happened that I read a lot of Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell in my early teens, and
I happened to know that Athene, a fairly high status goddess was also the goddess of most crafts - of weaving, and pot making and most kinds of artistry. So even though I was certain I’d be failed for *arguing* with the book, I got mad and wrote a piece about how the book as completely wrong. And I got my first A+. And all of a sudden, I understood what he wanted, and the teacher stopped being my tormentor and became the first person to teach me the most important thing I’ve ever learned - the answer to all questions is more complicated than it seems.

I got better at writing good things now and again, but it was not and is not a universal experience. Sometimes I write and when I’m done, I find that I’ve said something new, something I never knew I had inside my head. Sometimes I write things down and they are so far from the ideas percolating inside me that I can’t bear to look at them. And every once in a while, I look at what I wrote and it is as though some other, better author was there to write it for me. I’m grateful when that happens. I consider it a kind of magic, or gift. It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, however. And the rest of the time I struggle along saying things that are bad, or stupid, or not what I want.

Why am I writing about this? Because, strangely enough, I apparently achieved a tiny modicum of fame the other week. People have very kindly invited me to speak to their peak oil groups, or to advise them on something. And I must tell you, if you are one of them - I don’t know anything special. People say “I want to see your gardens” - and I wonder - that one? The one with all the weeds, that produced such a terrible tomato harvest? Or, “I bet you have wonderful children” - well, most days I like them, but I’m not the mother I’d like to be. Or, “I’d love to see your home - I bet it is beautiful” to which I can only scream, “NOOOOOOOO!!!”

My garden looks like yours or maybe a bit worse - messy, weedy, buggy, imperfect. My house looks much worse than yours, I’m willing to bet. There are cheerios ground into the carpet and boxes I haven’t unpacked since we moved in, and neither of us cleans as much as we should. My children are ordinary children (ok, I think they are wonderful - but not, perhaps, perfect) - loud and whiny sometimes and weird and rude - and also sweet and loving and gentle.

And I don’t know anything more than any of you about the future or what is to come. I write with a certain degree of authority because that’s how I write. I’m funny and passionate when I speak because that’s how I am - and because I write better than I talk in real life. But I’m also just plain stupid sometimes, and angry and foolish, greedy and petty and small. And this is not modesty, just the reality of me. Now I don’t really believe that Wendell Berry could be crude, so I understand why you think that when I say I garden you envision something perfect. But I can’t possibly live up to what you envision, and I’m bound to be a huge disappointment.

I am lucky in two things as a writer. Every once in a while I exceed myself and make a sentence or an idea or a paragraph that is a worthy offering to lay at the feet of some some better writer. And unlike Wordsworth and all romantics, I’ve never yet had that moment of disappointment when you look back at your younger self and think that you’ve lost a kind of perception. I was never a prodigy - I came into everything I did well in the fullness of time. And I never was nostalgic for anything of my youth - I’m still just as outraged and passionate as I was then - only smarter and wiser, I hope. So unlike Wordsworth and his ilk, I still believe, despite all the evidence of my mind, in the transformation of whole worlds by simple human will. But that’s all I have - and none of it makes me a better person.

I keep writing because I believe I can have an impact, and because there’s something heady about those moments when my other, better self takes the keyboard away from me and puts the right words or the right idea on the page. But I don’t understand how that is connected to the real person of me any better than you do. I just wonder at the wonder of it.


Now to the important stuff…yarn

Sharon October 3rd, 2006

I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-)…. Ok, I’m working on my own little bits of consumerism.

As we enter our third month of not buying things, I’m not minding it at all. We’ve had our failures (we ate lunch out once because it was pouring down sheets of rain, there was absolutely no place to eat a picnic indoors, and the kids were hysterical with hunger; I bought a packet of lifesavers and a bean burrito over the course of my trip to Ohio, and I ordered the component parts of a Halloween costume for Simon, since I have no real desire or skill at making homemade chicken beaks), but by and large, we’re not buying anything much, and we’re dramatically reducing our consumption of gas and electricity.

The only things I really miss are books - I really, really wanted to buy both David Orr’s new book and Richard Heinberg’s new book at the conference, and I whined a lot mentally, but didn’t - and yarn.

Now it isn’t like I don’t have any yarn. Actually, I have quite a bit of yarn. In fact, my husband would describe it as “an insane amount of yarn” - he has been known to ask me whether I’m collecting the stuff or knitting. And I’ll admit to an occasional bit of doubt about the answer. But there are important reasons why I don’t have enough yarn. First of all, it comes in many types. Perhaps other people don’t understand why if you have blue sky alpaca’s alpaca yarn and plymouth’s andecita alpaca yarn, you would also want knitpicks’ alpaca yarn. All I can say is that they are totally, utterly different, and I had excellent reasons for needing all three kinds. Plus, they all come in a range of colors, and it is important to have most of them. I’m not saying I need *all* the colors. I only need two or three shades of green, not all seven. Now multiply that by angora, wool, cotton, llama, quiviut, various combinations, plus various weights of yarn, not to mention special cases like sock yarn, and how could anyone (anyone here is named “Eric” just for the sake of discussion) not understand the need to have a full range of all these kinds of yarn, enough, perhaps, to remain warm and comfy during any major crisis, say, one involving the closing of many yarn shops.

OK, so I’m kind of kidding. I have to admit, my yarn habit (let us not even discuss the thousands and thousands of books that fill every available shelf in my house…those are practically the same as oxygen, and I’m pretty sure I’d die without them) got a little out of hand over the last few years. So now, I’m working my way through what I’ve got, and absolutely not buying yarn. But that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally open a pretty catalog, sent to me from patternworks or WEBS or something, and stare longingly at something by Noro or Adirondack Yarns, rather in the way that teenage boys stare at underwear catalogs - that is, with a longing made only more urgent and poignant by the fact that the chance of the starer getting anywhere near the desired object is pretty teeny.

But I’m good with not buying yarn. I have only 10 more months to go, and in the meantime, I have fleece to dye and spin, so I won’t suffer too much. But if I were buying yarn, here’s what I’d probably buy…

More Plymouth Baby Alpaca Grande - which knits up beautifully on much smaller needles than most bulky yarns (it is so soft that you can get away with this) and produces the warmest, softest, most beautiful hats in the world. I like their marled colors especially.

Cascade 220 in their really beautiful Colonial Green - I want to knit a felted skirt in precisely this color. That would take an enormous amount of yarn and time and be expensive and a real pain to do. But that doesn’t change that I want to do it.

More Lopi - I may just get icelandic sheep and produce my own, if this goes on too long.

More six-ply bulky merino from Malabrigo ( - I was an early discoverer of them, and I still have more of their yarn than anyone else’s. Now that the worsted is no longer available directly, and the prices have risen, I have trouble knitting it, because I know it is never coming back. But the bulky is nice too. I just wish I could get more of their super-saturated blue…

Ok, consumerism is bad. It is wrong. I will abase myself later. But I’m going to go pet my yarn first.


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