Archive for September, 2007

Why I Believe in Individual Action

Sharon September 21st, 2007

Brian M., who always makes useful and wise comments here has a lengthy discussion of my previous post, which I hope you will all read. I actually agree with much of it, and appreciate it. Where we differ is in our assessment of the power of individual action, and as I was composing a reply, rather rapidly since Yom Kippur begins at sundown, it occurred to me that I have never told this story on my blog, and should.

My mother and step-mother are lesbians. They have been together since 1979, when I was 7 years old, and my sisters and I grew up in their household. By the time my sister and I knew what lesbians were and this was something unusual, we were made aware in a whole host of ways that this was a dangerous thing in society. My mother and step-mother were very cautious about public evidence of their sexual preference, from necessity. We kept an empty bedroom that was my step-mother’s “official” room, so that no one who visited would know they slept together. When my parents divorce was being finalized, both father and mother warned us seperately not, under any circumstances, to mention my mother’s sexual preference to the judge who decided custody - because despite the fact that both parents agreed with and had a mutually acceptable arrangement, the judge had the right, power and precedent to take us away from our mother because of her sexual preference.

When it became known at school that my mother was gay, this was a matter of some great violence - my sister and I were both regularly assaulted by schoolmates who had strong opinions on this subject. We got in more than a few fights, and got used to running home from school. There were children not allowed to play with us, or come to our house. There were occasional and frightening acts of anonymous homophobia. There was danger that either could lose their jobs working with children if the circumstances were known. In our religious community, there were dark comments about the inappropriateness of their participating in religious rituals, and no effort to make these comments out of their children’s hearing.

All of this occurred in Massachusetts, which was and remains probably the most comfortable state in the Union for gay people to live in - which at the time was the only state with a publically gay congressman and other visible gay public figures. Being gay was dangerous, physically, culturally. It had, to a large degree, to happen in secret.

All this was true when I was 8. By the time I was 18, my step-mother had spoken publically at my high school on being gay, and there was a nascent gay and lesbian student’s association, sanctioned by the high school. The acts of homophobia, casual violence and threat and the muttering in church went away, as though they had never been. Responses were positive. Both mother and step-mother were out at work and everywhere else. My mother and step-mother were permitted to raise foster children, and were overwhelmingly praised for providing them with a good and healthy environment to live in. It is hard to describe the difference in the culture, and this is not merely my personal perception, or the difference between childhood and near-adulthood. I know dozens of people who confirm that their world simply, deeply, changed for gay people.

A little less than a decade after that, my mother and step-mother were married in their church, and a couple of years later, they were married in the city courthouse of their community, and their picture appeared in the newspaper. All of this in 20 years. It was not perfect. It was not pure - homophobia still exists, marriage is not legal in most places, there has been backlash and there is still violence. But the difference between today and 1979 is the difference between night and day.

Brian is certainly right, it would be every kind of hubris to imagine that I could change the world alone, or that any single individual action could be the lever that moved society. And yet, societies change, often radically and rapidly. It would be wrong to identify one single mover that made that change - was it Oprah and Donohue who put gay people on their stages? Was it the Drag Queens at Pride? Was it the slow opening up of people to their parents and families in ways that made them think, “Oh, I cannot generalize on this subject now - it applies to me?” Was it Barney Frank or Roseanne kissing a woman on tv? Was it political action and marches or everyday things people did in their daily lives, when they turned to a colleague and said, “Meet my partner, James.” I don’t know. But I do believe that every person my mother and step-mother came out to, every time they insisted that we are a normal family, every time I said “my Mom’s a lesbian - so what?” that made a difference too. It is not the difference of heroics, or hubris, or single actors. It is the difference of small things, and it was all the difference in the world to me.

When I came out as bisexual in college, I experienced difficulty and challenge, but the overwhelming support of a community, and nothing like what it must have been for my own mother at my age. She, after all, lived in a society where she could literally not know that she was gay, because being gay was so alien and unacceptable that she, like many people of her generation, married a man. I, thankfully, never had to live in that society - and yet she’s only 22 years older than I am.

This was more than just that people did, as Brian put, the best worst thing. This was people doing the *RIGHT* thing, and transforming society to make it far better than it was before, and quite rapidly, too. And because I’ve seen this, I believe it possible. It is not possible to stop all the effects of climate change. It is not possible to do it without pain and discomfort - there was pain and discomfort in the change of society around gays and lesbians. It is not possible for me personally to change the world by myself, except in the tiny and incremental ways that ordinary people do by doing, to the absolute hilt, all the ordinary things they are capable of doing.


The Unmentionable Odour of Death in September

Sharon September 21st, 2007

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

-W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939)

William Cline’s recent study on the implications of climate change for agriculture provides further evidence, just in case there was any real doubt, that climate change represents one of the greatest acts of human evil in history. Without intention, but without caring enough to consider and assess the consequences of their actions, the wealthiest, best educated, most priveleged, luckiest people on earth are going to kill millions, perhaps billions of the poorest, most desperate people on earth by their actions. We are going to commit an act of murder that exceeds anything ever accomplished by the Nazis, Pol Pot, Stalin or any of the great “villains” of history. We are, of course, still denying moral responsibility, or any connection to the bad guys.

And while we do it, we’re going to sit around and debate whether it is “fair” for us to have to give up our appliances, our car rides and our plane trips to visit family. Because, after all, such discussions show our virtue. They show that we’re very seriously willing to actually begin to consider not killing these people…we’re just not ready to actually stop *doing* it. Give us time, we say…give us time. Soon, I’m sure, we’ll stop, but if we stopped now, it would be hard for us. We’d lose our jobs, our economy would slow down, we’d miss our families. And of course, these are real hardships. And it isn’t fair. It is merely more fair for us than for people paying a higher price, who have never derived any benefit from it.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, people with families rather like yours live desperately on the margins, playing the odds so that they might eat, knowing, of course, that if the wheel lands on black (as it increasingly does because of our habits) they and their families and children will die.

In Subsaharan Africa, which has the highest birthrates in the world, the population will grow and food growing capacity will fall. So people who already eat minimal diets will see more of their babies die in infancy, watch more children succumb to illness our own kids would shake off, see more people suffer and die before their time. All so we can have our cars and decide how much meat we want to eat in the name of personal choice.

We want to believe ourselves charitable and kind. We want to believe ourselves just and honorable. And we try to be. But we seem unable to overcome the enormous disconnect between people who are dying because of our actions, people we are killing, because we haven’t found a good way out of our way of life, and ourselves. I am not sure how we should bridge this gap, only that we must.

Over the last 150 years, the rich world has engaged in a massive transfer of wealth from the “have-nots” to the “haves.” We have plundered the natural resources of the Global South, and continue to do so. And now that we have most of what we want from them, we will simply destroy those resources, and the lives that depend on them. We will turn their forests to desert, their food producing lands to wasteland.

Were these people who lived in our towns and our nation, we would be horrified. But somehow, we’re not. We say we believe these people are real like us, but we do not live our lives that way. We choose not to live our lives that way. We act as though the deaths we are responsible for are secondary, and as though those who remind us of them are being needlessly unkind at mentioning that our actions cause the death of innocent people. After all, we need support, help, accomodation, kindness in making our transitions from plastic to cloth. Yes, people are dying in these poorer parts of the world, but it is cruel to mention it, because it might make well-intentioned people feel bad.

And thus we talk about more and more complex ways of “fixing” the problem. Here, we trumpet, is how we can reduce household energy use by 70% - it just involves the production of a few thousand more pounds of greenhouse gasses per household…each. Here, we are told, is the way we can keep our cars on the road without any inconvenience to ourselves…and reduce greenhouse emissions. Here is our plan for allowing us to keep our houses warm and toasty and machines doing our dishes while we reduce greenhouse gasses - because, of course, inconvenience to ourselves is unthinkable. And while we pretend we will accomplish these things, we have more than 150 old style coal plants in plans or production in the US. Each one will produce the electricity to run our computers and washing machines, to give us those glorious conveniences that allow us the time to read blogs and dress nicely. And people who have had no breakfast and no lunch will give their weeping children grass to eat, until the grass all turns brown and dies.

Whenever I write these posts, I’m told I should keep things positive, that I sound too angry, that people need to be gently reassured, since they are doing the best they can. And maybe that’s true, that I’m the wrong messenger, because I do get angry - at myself as much as anyone else. I still have a car, although I drive it vastly less. There are lives on my hands. And I do not wish to be the kind of person who has preventable, eminently unnecessary deaths on my hands.

But I’m not totally sure that the warm cuddly narrative of “we’re all doing our very best job, and we should take our time and do it gradually” is sufficient. What for the people who cannot wait for us, whose lives hang in the balance NOW - for the people who will die tomorrow because of today’s greenhouse gas emissions. Do they get a voice, a vote? Does their fear and anger even count? Do we hope that somewhere, the starving people will say, “Well, you tried. You bought some offsets and used the cloth bag. That was good enough.” How would you feel, were it your life, your child’s life?

Tonight begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Repentence, when we remember our dead and ask forgiveness for our collective sins. We beat our breasts, literally, and name the sins that have been spread among our community. On Yom Kippur, there is no escape from the notion that you are responsible for your actions. On Yom Kippur, there is no pretending that the dead do not follow us home and haunt our lives. On Yom Kippur, all the sins of one’s community and fellow Jews belong to us, personally - we expiate, to the extent we can, the sins of others as well as our own.

The rich world has a great number of sins to right. The first step, we believe, to making your sins right is to undo the harm that you have done, or compensate those who you have harmed. But we also believe you cannot make amends to the dead - the dead are dead, and no forgiveness is possible.

The only thing we can do is to cease making more dead. The only thing we can do is to stop killing. The only thing we can do is to recognize that this cannot be a question of comfortable accomodation, that while we can warmly congratulate ourselves on the steps we take, we must always be driven and prodded forward- further and faster -by the reality that lives as valuable as our own are on the line. We must do what generations of humans have tried, and often failed (but occasionally succeeded) at doing - treating others as we would be treated, doing to others nothing that is hateful to us.

And we must stop seeking the perfect technology, the 50K solution, the magic bullet. Instead, we must, as Auden says, love one another, or die.



Squirrel Time

Sharon September 17th, 2007

We’ve been focusing on getting ready for winter at our house. The kids are watching various animals in our neighborhood making their preparations, watching the beavers rebuild their house, feeling the dogs’ coats thicken and watching the squirrels gather beech nuts and acorns. And of course, we’re collecting our own acorns.

As our homeschool focuses on “how we get ready for winter” we’re splitting wood and canning tomatoes, replenishing our supplies of basics like soybeans and popcorn, digging potatoes and onions and picking apples by the bushel at our local orchard. Mom and Dad both knit when we’re sitting quietly, and 3 1/2 year old Isaiah has started his first scarf and brought in his first pumpkin. The older boys take (heavily supervised) turns with the axe.

Now some of this is the weather. If you live in cool places, there’s something about shaking off the lethargy of summer and beginning the transition to winter. Some of it is necessity - our heavily local diet means that if we don’t preserve food, we’ll have a very boring selection of foods all winter.

Some of it, of course, is worry. It was less than totally cheering today to open my inbox and see that there was a run on a major, first world bank. I admit, that’s not something I’ve seen in my lifetime: I don’t think there’s a lot of doubt that the recession so widely predicted is going to happen. The question is how hard, and how fast, and how our own situation will play out. Untenured faculty and writers aren’t exactly raking in the dough, and the less I have to buy in tough times, the better.

But most of it doesn’t have anything to do with that at all - it has to do with the restoration of our connection to agricultural cycles. Most Americans have lived most or all their life in a society where thinking ahead to the future is not much required, but that was not true through most of human history. The reality is that for most of human history, life was cyclical, not immediate. You didn’t just eat seasonally, you lived seasonally. So in autumn, one was thinking not just of curried root vegetable soup tomorrow, but of what we would eat in the springtime, before the first crops began to come in. In May, one was thinking of next winter’s meals. And for northern folk, the whole of the world worked around one reality “winter is coming.” On some level, each season, from the spring planting to summer’s haying and canning to autumn’s harvesting was preparation for the space in between, for the dormant, quiet time in the middle.

A friend of mine who works at a historical reenactment museum says she hears almost daily “you left your beans too long…” or “those beets have gotten to big…” She observes that even those who clearly garden often don’t realize what is required to feed yourself through a winter without bananas and broccoli from Chile. Those beets have to be large to last, the beans are drying to be eaten that way in soup, and a percentage of all the crops must be left on the vine to provide seed for the next year. But we’re not in the habit of thinking in those terms, when so much is so readily available to us.

Right now, one of my jobs is to figure out where my spring crops will go - I have to plant the new garlic soon, and figure out which beds will get wood ashes over the winter and which won’t, because they’ll have tomatoes in them. So even now, as it gets cold and I bring in the cabbages, half my mind is in the springtime, and on next fall’s harvest. The turkeys go to the butcher next week, and the space is already reserved for the spring turkeys, and perhaps more geese. The barn is rebuilt for the milk goats I plan to add, and if we want to get them this fall, we must get the fence in the ground before it freezes, or we’ll wait until spring… It is an endless cycle.

I have wondered for some time if one of the reasons we as a society don’t seem to be able to look far ahead to a future that isn’t immediately visible is because we’ve gotten out of the habit of thinking further ahead than tonight’s dinner. I can’t prove it, of course, but I occasionally suspect that if we could just grasp again the habit of cyclical thinking, perhaps we might be able to see a little further on the horizon.

This of course, is merely speculation, the speculation of a squirrel in pursuit of her own nuts.


52 Weeks Down - Week 21 -Keep the Heat Down - or Off!

Sharon September 17th, 2007

I’d planned to write this post sometime in early October, but the cold front that brought temps down to the 20s and 30s in the north and frosted out some of my tomatoes made me think that it was time to talk about how to reduce energy costs and usage while keeping cozy.

The first goal is to wait as long as possible to heat the house at all. Now my house is divided into two parts - a well insulated newer addition (small) and a large, old drafty farmhouse (big). But even in the drafty farmhouse, we haven’t felt any need for the heat these last few days. Yes, it is quite chilly in the am, but with daytime temps in the 50s or higher and sun striking the house, we can count on warming things up during the day, opening the windows when the outside air is warm enough, and sealing the air in when it gets chilly. We simply dress warmly and cuddle up together - it is actually quite pleasant. We play “heater chicken” all fall, and try and see if we can go longer this year than last year. The goal is to reduce the heating season from Nov. 1 to April 1 - we usually end up fudging on one end or another, but we try to get closer each year.

We also don’t heat the bedrooms. The temps here in the hills of upstate NY have dropped to minus 30 degrees a few years ago, and routinely get to minus 20, but we’ve never heated our bedrooms. Ambient heat from the stoves and household drift upstairs through a couple of vents in the floor, and our bedrooms have been reinsulated so that even at their coldest, the temps are in the high 40s. We dress the children for bed in double layers - warm long johns covered with footed fleece pajamas (Lands End makes these up to size 14 kids and Big Feet Pajamas makes these in adult sizes, if you care - my crazy-tall 7 year old son is now almost ready for the smallest adult size), and have plenty of warm blankets. When we had young babies, they slept in the warmest room in the house (never dropped below 50), in the same outfits plus sleeper blankets. Even an infant over 10lbs (the weight at which they can maintain their own body temperature) can sleep in a cool room, and in fact, rooms in the low sixties or below have been found to reduce the risk of SIDS.

Our goal is to use the oil heat (mix of forced air and radiant floor) as little as possible and to use as little wood as possible. We do this by mostly living in the well insulated apartment during the winter, except when we have guests, keeping the heat low (50 (lower when the woodstove is going), 55 when we have guests), and by dressing appropriately. That means layers, long johns or tights under pants or skirts, t shirts under turtlenecks, under sweaters. In the early fall, after acclimating to summer, even 60 feels quite chilly. After a winter of shovelling snow and hauling water jugs to the poultry, 55 inside feels pleasantly toasty. The key is to acclimate.

We are in the process of reinsulating the older part of the house but this is an expensive proposition, so we’ve chosen cheap ways of dealing with this, including heavy curtains (you can make your own out of blankets or pretty quilts, or buy insulated curtains - we have a mix of both - there’s a great article here on window quilts: We also have used free bubble wrap from packages on windows, and I’ve heard of people stapling the bubble wrap into wooden frames so it can be reused year after year.

If your walls are leaky, consider “tapestries” - they were the classic insulation of the past. Either make quilts or hang blankets. If you are cold at night, create an enclosed space that can be heated by your bodies - a four poster bed was not a mere decoration - the top and curtains meant that your body heated the space to a cozy warmth and kept the heat in.

Keep blankets around the house for when you sit, and a shawl is not a mere nicety, but a truly useful thing. Keep spares for guests, and perhaps extra warm slippers and a few sweaters to share. Drink hot beverages - my kids think a cup of herbal tea under a blanket with Mom while we read stories is a huge treat. Even a guest who isn’t used to the low-heat house will find themselves comfortable when offered a lap blanket, a warm sweater and a cup of hot chai.

Insulation doesn’t have to be expensive, if you do it a bit at a time. Replace old windows when you can, fill in cracks and otherwise, keep the house comparatively tight, while still allowing for good ventilation. But mostly, it is easier in many ways to acclimate and insulate yourself than to keep your house perfectly warm. A nightcap on your head, or a hat in the house will keep a good bit of your body heat in.

Most of us will find that we can tolerate a lot more cold than we’ve become accustomed to - it will take time and practice, but it is well within the realm of possibility. If we keep our houses heated to 70 or more, we’ll never allow our bodies to acclimate fully, and thus, we’ll never really appreciate how warm and cozy a fire in the stove can be, even in a cool house, as long as you are busy and working or playing.


Can You Spare a Dime? Why We Could….But Won’t

Sharon September 16th, 2007

They used to tell me
I was building a dream.
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plow
Or guns to bear.
I was always there.
Right on the job.
They used to tell me
I was building a dream.
With peace and glory ahead.
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?
Once I built a railroad
I made it run
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad
Now it’s done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
- Gorney and Harburg “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

One of the most interesting aspects of editing my own older writings on peak oil for my book is how often I find myself change “may” or “could be” or “has been predicted” to “is.” That is, it is striking even to me how rapidly we have moved from the realm of prediction to observed phenomena. The habit of thinking in terms of anticipation rather than reality is a hard one to break - after a seeming endless divining of signs and portents and wondering if you are crazy or not, it is strange to suddenly realize, “Oh, we’re here in the beginnings of the new world.” It shakes me sometimes, and I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one.

That was one of the most striking revelations I had when reading Naomi Klein’s wise essay in this month’s _Harpers_, “Disaster Capitalism.” (The original article, at Harpers, is behind a paywall, and this is somewhat different than the 2005 article of a similar title written in The Nation and available for free - it is really worth reading the article in full, and probably better to read the book from which it is adapted _The Shock Doctrine_) Klein, without a full analysis of the energy implications, has grasped the basic economic reality - that our next “bubble” will be/is the scavenging of wealth from the ordinary poor people (most of us) by the comparatively fortunate (mostly corporations), as we privatize the cleaning up of the messes we’ve made and pass their costs out upon the rest of us. In fact, one could describe the massive growth in much of the housing industry as an early version of disaster capitalism, offering a fantasy of security to the poor who were bound to lose their security and homes. Bottom feeding is the new black, I guess. As those who can afford it (or who in desperation can secure credit when they can’t afford it) pay privately to fix the consequences of the terrible things we’ve put in motion, the rest of us will be stuck.

Klein quotes, among other figures, the observation that it would cost 1.5 *trillion* dollars in five just to get America’s basic engineering infrastructure up to speed - just to keep the bridges from falling down, the sewers from backing up. Since that’s a bit less than we intend to spend in Iraq, according to Joseph Steigletz, do any of us really believe that our heavily leveraged economy is going to allow us to spend trillions to fix up the existing infrastructure, much less to engage in the vastly more expensive project of adapting that infrastructure to a low energy, renewable dependent future?

That’s why the gentlemen over at The Oil Drum who reply to every thread with “But all we have to do is….” and then offer some lengthy proposal about electrified rail, 500 new nuclear plants, wind farms everywhere or covering up Arizona with solar panels, so amuse me. And it isn’t that I don’t think that we’ll ever do any of those things. Yes, we will almost certainly build new nuclear plants, wind farms and lay some new rail track. But what we won’t be having is a (successful) Manhattan project for renewable energy, or any universal system that allows all of us to spend the next 35 years comfortably adapting our lives to better houses, a renewably powered grid and electrically powered cars. Demonstration projects will be built, some states and communities will adapt more than others, we’ll do some piece work in infrastructure, but ultimately, the money isn’t there. Bottom feeding is never going to be as profitable as our previous economic mobilizers, simply because it depends on eternally extracting tinier and tinier sums from more and more desperate people. As there are fewer wealthy, the folks who now offer hurricane evacuation on luxury cruises will find fewer customers. So not only will we have a security apartheid, but also a shrinking class of those who can afford it.

Now my own particular take on peak oil is very simple. Energy and money are powerfully linked. Less available energy and higher costs for it mean less money. A few people will get rich on this. A vastly larger number will get poor - and indeed, have been getting poor, as real wealth has fallen steadily since shortly after American oil peaked in the 1970s. This trend is likely to accellerate, and its consequences is this - Iraq may well be the last giant public boondoggle of America, unless ethanol outlives it. That is, by the time we extract ourselves from Iraq, and see the full consequences of it, by the time we realize that we just blew the last chance we had to rebuild New Orleans or provide universal health care, we’ll realize that there simply isn’t enough money left for all the big stuff we need to do.

In order for us to have a life anything like the one we’re living right now in 20 years, we would have to do the following:

1. Rebuild the grid, and replace existing plants with new one, a project estimated at several trillion dollars.

2. Devote 2% of our GDP annually to the remediation of climate change - minimum. This does not include the costs of responding to disasters because we’ve let things go too far.

3. Reinsulate and retrofit 90 million dwellings for minimal heating and cooling needs, at an estimated cost of 20-50K per home.

4. Reorder and build a local agriculture infrastructure and build transport and delivery mechanisms for food.

5. Engage in public transport building and the adaptation of our whole economy to more local societies. Bring millions of families that can no longer afford to fly to one another together.

Shall I go on? Because this is merely the beginning. The projects are so enormous, and the combined effects of so many of our foolishnesses coming home to roost so vast that while we *could* do any one or two of these things, we probably won’t even do that. What, instead, we will do is manage in bits and pieces, and then not manage when we can’t. We’ve seen in New Orleans and with our crumbling infrastructure that we can no longer actually keep up with fixing and maintaining, recreating and rebuilding what we have let go. All of the things, as Christians say in prayer, what we have done and what we have left undone are starting to tumble apart, and we cannot afford to mend them.

The reality is that when we covertly acknowledged we could no longer maintain the basic infrastructure of industrial society, when we implicitly acknowledged that we would tolerate the war to keep the fossil fuels going, when we explicitly said “the American way of life is non-negotiable” we accepted our reality - we’re not going to fix the problem, even if we could have. We’re racing towards a wall, and not only are we not slowing down, we’re gunning the motor by doing things like expanding ethanol production and sending the next generation’s hope against malnutrition down the river, and letting the terms of the political discussion be shaped by whether or not to tighten fuel efficiency, rather than how fast we can get the cars off the road. As George Monbiot has observed, we have chosen the path of appearing to do things while not doing them, and we have thus sealed part of our future.

Any major infrastructure projects will come out of the tax dollars of increasingly poor and desperate people - or out of the corporate coffers of the people who prey on them, who will be absolutely certain to ensure that anyone who *doesn’t* have the cash to pay doesn’t benefit. The simple fact that we can’t afford to rebuild a major American city, or keep the bridges up should point out to us that the notion of preserving a public good of any sort has passed entirely out of the culture.

If you retain hope that you or your kids will still be living the same basic kind of life, only with more renewable energy and maybe a nicer bike that you ride more often, I would abandon it now. It is true that you may be one of the fortunate whose corporate pensions were invested in growth industries like private militias and bringing bottled water to the drought stricken, but do you want to bet on it? I know my own personal bet has always been this - that I will be like most people - poor. And most of us, like the young man in “Brother can you spare a dime” will be shocked that we, the middle class who were once the subject of a great deal of attention to our plight, will cease to be recognized. “They called me Al. / It was Al all the time. / Why don’t you remember?/ I’m your pal. /Say buddy, can you spare a dime?” We have already explicitly ceased to recognize people from the class who serve in the military, work on farms, and otherwise do the basic labor we depend on, and increasingly, they will cease to recognize us.

Now I imagine that for some people, perhaps many, this post seems remarkably bleak. I think a majority of even those who are convinced about peak oil and climate change think that we’ve still got time. And in a sense, we do - the slow grind is on, but it won’t hit everyone at once. The problem is in betting that you will be one of the fortunate who gets hit later, rather than sooner. But the notion that the crisis is happening now, that we really are at the end of things, and the beginning of them, is a frightening one.

But there’s an upside. At the end of his analysis of the problem of complexity in _The Collapse of Complex Societies_, Joseph Tainter includes a very brief explanation of why “undevelopment” that is, voluntary regression of society to lower levels of consumption and complexity is bound to failure. He argues,

“Here is the reasons why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.” (Tainter, 214).

Now Tainter’s central argument is that complexity, and the diminishing returns of maintaining it, is what drives societies towards a crisis point, and we can certainly see diminishing returns in our own society. The very fact that bottom feeding and cleaning up after ultimately economically destructive events like war and disaster is being seen as growth industry points out that we truly have no place left to go economically. Having built a tower to the moon that has fallen short, we are now picking up the bottom items, pulling them out one by one, and using them to lengthen the tower, giving us the illusion we get where we are going without actually falling over. But as anyone old enough to have seen a Wiley Coyote cartoon knows, at some point, you look down and see the absence of any solid base.

Why should this be even remotely refreshing? Because Tainter is right - we probably won’t ever stop the growth machine voluntarily - we *can’t* - but once things fall apart, we have no choice but to start again. And as difficult as that will be, and as little as I relish it, I believe my children’s future is more secure in a world where can’t afford to burn as much fossil fuel as we like, and where we have to leave some resources in the ground for future generations. That may seem a small hope, but it is actually a vast one. I do not propose that peak oil will make us better people - hardly. But since we appear entirely unable to put the brakes on ourselves, I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that better now than later.

And the reality is this - we actually need very few fossil fuels. There is little question that human beings pee out enough nitrogen to keep us fed, along with judicious use of land. Our basic needs - and I mean very basic ones - are for food, shelter, water. We can get along with considerably less of everything than we presently use by changing our diets, making do with our existing housing, learning to live comfortably where we are, using water much more carefully. The vast majority of what we use fossil fuels for are comfort and convenience, and we may find that without them, we do surprisingly well. There is no doubt that we can manage this better or worse, that our life with minimal resource use could be bleak and horrible, or comparatively graceful, and it is this distinction that concerns me - not “how do we keep the trains running on time and the job market for lit professors healthy” - because while I might prefer a life of trains running and Shakespeareans, we all have a solid bit of historical evidence for that fact that neither is essential to human life; but “how do we keep lifespans long, infant mortality low, literacy high and community ties strong?” And the best possible answer I can come up with right now is that the first step to making those things happen is to acknowledge all the other things that we are never going to do.


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