Archive for October, 2007

City Mouse, Country Mouse

Sharon October 4th, 2007

Today is Shemini Atzeret, when Jews pray for rain, and when we say goodbye to Sukkot. Sukkot is the holiday in which Jews eat and sometimes sleep in funny looking little houses in their yards. One of my more urban Jewish friends used to say that carrying the soup out from the house to the sukkah was the closest he ever wanted to get to camping ;-). There are a lot of Jewish jokes about not going anywhere near nature, because Jews are overwhelmingly an urban people, for a whole host of reasons. Many places forbade Jews to own land, or much land. Through most of Jewish history it was only a matter of time before you would be cast off your land or driven out of it. So urban life made sense, and gradually, most Jews left the land and agriculture, and mostly even forgot what it was like to be an agrarian people. But we are reminded of the agricultural roots of our faith in a whole host of ways, one of which is sukkot.

Sukkahs are temporary dwellings, with roofs made of branches that let you see the stars and feel the rain, to remind Jews of the booths they lived in in the desert after escaping slavery. They remind us of our vulnerability. Irving Greenberg argues that Sukkot is the Jewish people’s reminder that we don’t usually get to stay much of anywhere - so don’t get too attached to any bit of soil. In fact, he argues, we shouldn’t get attached to our land, because it can kill us, if we don’t leave in time when things get bad for the Jews.

Despite that reminder of our vulnerability and our instability, Sukkot is a happy holiday, a harvest festival. And that’s perhaps the most remarkable thing about sukkot to me - sukkot reminds us of dwelling in the desert, where there was no harvest from the soil, only manna from heaven. But, it is implied, we still celebrated the harvest, even though we were far from the people harvesting. That is, our agrarianism doesn’t depend on our being *present* or participants in agriculture, merely that we know and understand that right now, the most important thing going on in the harvest, and that even in cities, we live our lives around that knowledge.

And it is that part of Sukkot that most fascinates me - the insistence that we live the agricultural rhythyms of the earth no matter where we are, that we are fundamentally tied to our agrarian culture. My husband grew up in an apartment in suburban New Jersey. His family had an agricultural past - his great-grandfather had a farm on the German Danish border, until the day the Nazis came for him. Eric’s great-grandfather, Ali Wolfe, escaped, but the farm no longer belongs to his family, of course. And thus, my husband and his family were left to express their ties to the land through religious holidays and the occasional backyard garden.

My husband grew up, as most Americans who live far from rural places do, only dimly aware of the links between rain and agriculture, food in the stores and on shelves and food in fields. He grew up far away from the places where food was grown, far away from the rites and rituals of agriculture, seeing them only through the lens of his synagogue, which was itself a suburban place, where ritual foods come from the store. In two generations, my husband’s family lost not just a farm, but an awareness, a systemic understanding of how nature and human will and
the blessings of G-d unify to feed and clothe and shelter them - that is, precisely the facts that shaped the development of their faith.

Urbanization is the biggest trend in history. For the first time, more human beings live in cities than in the country. More than 50,000 farmers worldwide leave their land or are driven off of it every single day, most of them moving to cities, often to slum dwellings on the outskirts of growing megacities. And in each family, there is a cycle in that movement. The first generation who moves from the farm to the city remains agricultural in mindset and practice. They will never fully assimilate into urban life, but will be the grandparents who embarass their children by picking edible plants from the side of the road and giving nutritious soups instead of vitamins. Their children will want to fit into the urban life. They will disdain and reject the skills of their parents, in many cases, or at best view what their parents know as irrelevant. The second generation recognizes that what the first generation knew is now gone, and wants it as far out of the way as possible. The second generation will be taught how to pick and use those plants, but they will see such knowledge as old fashioned, embarassing or even “dirty.”

Then comes the third generation removed from the land. They may have eaten grandmother’s soup, or seen her pick the greens, but they will also have absorbed their parent’s rejection of these things - at least at first. And only when they are grown will the grandchildren begin to see the value of what their grandparents knew, and to try and recreate it a little. If they are fortunate, they will have noticed their lack before the first generation is gone. If not, they will try and recreate what is lost as best they can, knowing that it is never the same as the first. They will start searching for the echoes of their agrarian past everywhere, and begin trying to remake the world from the echoes in their religion, their practices, their habits.

This process, with variations, gets enacted everywhere that people move out of the country and into the cities. Sociologist Lynda Kim argues that this is pretty much universal in the transition from rural to urban cultures. But does it have to work this way? We may not be able to reverse the tide of urbanization - indeed, there are good reasons for concentrating people into cities. We simply don’t have enough land to allow every single person on earth an agrarian life. But how do we keep the link between city and country? It is a link that is important to both parties - the exploitation of farmers who are underpaid and disregarded is only possible when you don’t know any farmers, when you don’t care what they have to do to make your dinner. And urbanites who have lost touch with natural rhythyms need to get in touch with them, to have a relationship not only to their food, but to their agrarian origins.

America has an unusual gap between city and country. In many places in Africa, Asia and Russia, even urban people have a “country place.” But this does not imply a recreational second home, as it does here, but a simple shack or other shelter designed to allow you to gather or grow food during the correct season. In much of southern Africa, middle class urban dwellers keep cattle, and go out the land to tend them during the weekends. In Russia, summerhouses allow people to collect mushrooms and wild plants.

In America, there are still vestiges of this culture. Hunting and fishing camps are now recreational to a large degre, but there are still millions of Americans who rely for deer and fish for primary sources of food. The community garden in the undeveloped areas of urban centers might be a metaphoric version of this - the reminder that food does not have to be grown only on land you own, or on land your house rests upon. But the overwhelming assumption is that the first step to agriculture is ownership.

That’s wrong. It is wrong because many of the people who most need to grow food cannot afford to own land, and it is wrong, I think because as Sukkot reminds us, it isn’t about any one piece of land. It is about all the land. Our society can only survive the coming crises if we make the nation, and the world bloom, if we use land productively, wisely and carefully. But it is also wrong because understanding what is going on depends on having a populace that is connected to its own agriculture. That is, we cannot afford to leave millions of city and suburb dwellers out of the project of creating a sustainable agriculture. And since few people can afford to live in expensive cities and also own large quantities of rural land, we need to think of more creative ways than traditional ownership to draw those connections

How might we reconnect urban dwellers to their own agricultural traditions? CSAs have provided an excellent model, but up until now, most CSAs are providing only in-season produce to their members. There is no reason why urban dwellers shouldn’t also get their grains from CSGs, signing up in the spring to receive a fair share of wheat, beans, corn or rice. There is no reason why we shouldn’t get our yarn, sweaters, mittens, gloves, tshirts, socks, tablecloths and blankets from CSFs, that produce fiber goods, or yarn that someone can bring to their neighborhood weaver or sock knitter to be made up. While this would be more expensive than buying sweatsocks from Walmart, it would also be putting our money where our principles are.
Albert Bates told me last year that The Farm has started the US’s first “CSE” - where they use existing expanses of outbuilding roof to generate solar electricity, and sell it back to their neighbors. The possibilities for wood for heating and building, clothing, food, and other goods are enormous, and vastly underexplored.

But it isn’t just enough to have a relationship with farmers. There are some things you can only learn by touching and smelling and living. We need to bring urban dwellers out to the land, at least some of the time. Train and boat lines that run from cities to the countryside could take teenagers who need summer work out to farms. It wasn’t so very long ago that many teenagers barned tobacco, baled hay or picked cherries every year. It could be that way again.

While buying your own dacha in the countryside is a pricey proposition, there is no reason why urban dwellers might not invest in local farms. They might buy some sheep that will be theirs, paying to have them fed, tended and grazed, receiving lamb and wool at the end of the year. We routinely stable horses this way - there is no reason we could not do so with food animals. The owner, of course, would have a relationship with the animal. Or perhaps urban dwellers might join together to buy a plot of land with a farmer. The farmer would farm the land, paying out the owners in produce and food in perpetuity. Thousands of young people would like to get on some land - there is no reason they should not. Such arrangements are new, and potentially come with difficulties, but normalizing them would go a long way to making them easier to navigate.

The movement to limit development has meant that towns and cities often now hold parcels of land that cannot be developed. There is no reason why such community resources should serve only the tax rolls - there is no reason why cattle cannot graze the local commons again, why farms rescued from the bulldozer should not be transformed into smaller truck farms, or farmed by tenants, or turned into community gardens. Many already are - the intervale in Burlington Vermont being a stunning example. More could be.

It is harvest time now. We are filling the grain bins and enjoying the lush period of the autumn. It is time for all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike to remind ourselves that none of us is so very far from our agrarian past, and that all we have to do to reclaim it is to begin to do so.


Get Thee Over By Me, Satan

Sharon October 3rd, 2007

I got a very funny email from a correspondant who asked that I not use his name when I write this. He tells me that he’s newly aware of peak oil and climate change, and wants very much to encourage others to make changes. The problem is that in doing so, he’s afraid he’s turned into his own worst nightmare - a moralist who goes around telling people not to have fun. He says that he has spent his whole adult life raging against people who worry about private sin, and here he is saying, “you really should use a cloth bag.” So he asked me to reassure him that even though we need to cut down on our emissions, there’s still hope for a life of sinful joy.

And I’m very happy to oblige this kind gentleman, because I think that’s a real danger - there are actual, powerful moral issues at play here, but I don’t really want the job of chasing people around their houses scolding them for using incandescent lightbulbs. I’ve never much liked people who sat around telling others not to have fun - and there is some of that in my writing - because some of the kinds of fun we’re having are so damned destructive. But I wish to reassure the gentleman in question that my own vision of the future does not, as Jedidiah Springfield said in _The Simpsons_ involve “endless hard work and a tasteless mush I call rootmarm.”

So in coming up with an answer for this, I thought I should reassure everyone that the big sins, the good old fashioned seven deadlies, are still not only available, but peak oil and climate change present us with some exciting opportunities for exploring their outer limits. Some of you may have ethical issues about one or all of these things, but generally speaking, none of the below do any harm to others, and so, as far as I’m concered, are none of anyone’s business.

So, how shall we commit them? What ethical lapses are left to us, once we clean up our ecological footprints? What forms of immorality can we blithely enjoy, knowing that our energy usage is down?

Well, there’s Lust. This one is my personal favorite of the seven deadlies, and one of the best options for post-peak sinning. Because, after all, in some religions non-procreative sex is considered lustful and therefor bad. But, in ecological terms, the more non-procreative the better - after all, reproduction has a heavy environmental impact. So exploring those alternative orifices? Good for the environment! Going gay or lesbian? Very environmentally sound, since the risk of accidental pregnancy is quite low! Ogling your lover? Better than tv or computer time! Orgies? Human powered!

Sex itself is by far one of the best forms of sustainable entertainment available to us. It requires few accoutrements, and most of those can be made of sustainable materials (lubricants, underwear) or serviced using solar batteries and renewable energies. Care must be taken, of course, but you can make about 50 condoms for the same amount of energy used in three plastic supermarket bags. Knock yourself out! It can be done in low light conditions, has the useful advantage of providing cardiac benefits and warmth in low heated rooms, and is the original low cost entertainment.

Home-style, solo lust is also very much environmentally sound. Masturbation is an excellent hobby that, if you spend enough time on it, can help you break any unfortunate, wasteful habit from smoking to collecting stuffed pigs. Good pornography (made by consenting, well paid grownups I assume we all know) is available at used bookstores, several of my local yard sales or can be downloaded from the internet and printed onto the back of recycled paper for regular reuse. Really, unless your particular taste runs to being wrapped in latex or the mile-high club, there’s just no way to make good old safe sex unsustainable.

Gluttony: You’d think I’d be against this one. After all, I’m always concerned about fair distribution of food. And there’s a point there, but I’d be a raging hypocrite if I focused on it. And the reality is that if you grow food, or enjoy local produce, there are some remarkable opportunities for gluttony. It is no accident that the word “glut” and “gluttony” are related. Growing your own food practically demands you overindulge in season.

Think about raspberries. You wade into the patch, getting pricked for your trouble, and brushed with red stains on your clothes. Of course, you could just fill your pail and put them virtuously up for the winter, but tomorrow you’ll be drowning in raspberries again, and it would be practically a sin to waste them. You *have* to eat them - there are just too many of the lush red things asking to be devoured. Then you take the ones you were too full to eat back to the kitchen and lick the jam off the spoon. By the end you are thoroughly sick of raspberries - until tomorrow.

And so it is with everything when you grow your own. One day you have the first six pea pods, and you say, “Oh, peas!” A week later you are groaning since you’ve eaten your weight in peas morning, noon and night. Plus, let’s be honest, home cooked food tastes so much better than commercial food - it may be better for you, but you are a better woman than I, Gunga Din, if you can resist home roasted asparagus, or if you can just eat one.

How about Sloth? Oh, it is so hard to choose which of the seven deadlies I like best! This is another endearing one - lying around doing nothing is one of my best things! Here’s the thing that most people don’t realize - a low energy lifestyle, generally speaking, is one with a lot of free time for napping and reading trashy novels.

Seriously, we’ve been told over and over again that we’re about to be dragged back to lives of endless drudgery, when, in fact, as Juliet Schor observes in _The Overworked American_, historically no one ever worked as hard as workers have in the era of industrialization. We tend to think of our current era as englightened, giving us lots of free time, but that’s only in comparison to the 19th century industrial era, when employee hours peaked. Agricultural labor throughout history has been far easier than most people’s jobs today.

Many lower consumption, lower energies societies provide evidence of this. 11th century serfs before the Norman Conquest worked only 176 days per year, spending the rest on sabbaths and holidays. Helena Norberg Hodge describes the Ladakhis as able to meet all their needs by working about 4 months of the year, with the rest of the time spent partying. Eric Brende in _Better Off_ describes peak labor among the Amish as less than many white collar employees.

The reality is that it can be very challenging to find the time to do the work of creating a sustainable society *and* doing the work we have to do right now to make money to pay our mortgages, but in a lower input society as a whole, we might get a great deal of time back - time to be spent on indolent pursuits. In fact it should be. Because sloth is great for the environment. You aren’t driving anywhere. You aren’t writing things on the computer. You aren’t bustling about running the vacuum cleaner. You are simply lying there, dozing, reading, trying to remember who sang “Jesse’s Girl” or scratching your behind. If you reduce you food consumption to match your energy level then you’ve found the perfect environmentalist activity.

Envy - I can’t think of any way to make envy fun, if you are the one being envious. In fact, envy is just icky - while you can enjoy being lustful or gluttonous, who can imagine having fun envying people. I can’t think of any useful way that peak oil or climate change will make envy more fun - although I think one of the virtues of a sustainable life is that you honestly don’t have to envy anyone anymore. Once you start seeing the things we’re supposed to want as overly consumptive and toxic, you can shake things off and give envy the boot…at least until someone shows you their super-cool bicycle powered washing machine.

Pride: Pride is about feeling yourself better than other folk. And moralism of any stripe, including environmentalis, comes with a hefty risk that you’ll feel some pride and self-righteousness. I think anyone who wanted to shoot an arrow at me on the sin front could get me here.

But there’s one sort of pride that may be a sin, but has some virtues too - it the kind of pride that leads you to give money away even when things are tight, and the kind of pride that drives you to take care of yourself even when times are tough, and you could use some help. This has a down side too, but it also creates strong, self-reliant people who have a right to be proud of what they accomplish. And that kind of pride is something we will see a lot more of as time goes on - because as things get more difficult, those of us who do get on as best we can will have more and more reason to be proud of that accomplishment.

But we can’t mistake the kind of pride for the idea that everyone is in the same circumstances, or that only bad people need help. That’s the pathological version of the sin - instead, we take pride in our own ability to help others, and to get by when we can, without sitting in judgement.

Anger: I have to tell you, this one is in no danger of going anywhere. As the old saying goes, if you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention. The reasons for anger and outrage are multiplying, and if you want to rage against the machine, the dying light or anything else, there’s ample territory for that rage. Just aim it somewhere useful.

Ok, Greed is bad. We know that. We’re in this mess because of greed. A whole lot of this mess comes because we’ve got problems with greed mixed up with envy. But let’s be honest - we’re all a little bit greedy. It is just a matter of what we want. I have a list - trees and perennial plants for a larger forest garden, goats, angora bunnies, a hoophouse, a James handwasher, enough cashmere yarn to knit a really nice sweater, the walking wheel in the antique shop next to me. I’m a pig, I know - I have a beautiful home, plenty to wear, a big garden, a nice spinning wheel, and all I can think, in the immortal words of Tom Lehrer speaking of pornography, is, “More, more I’m still not satisfied.” Mea culpa.

But here greed is mixed up with ambition. More, as Bill McKibben puts it, is roosting on the same tree as better. And sometimes it really does take something else to make things better. The question is can we be greedy, avaricious people, and manage our greed, learn to live with “not now” and one present under the tree instead of sixteen.

Because greed itself isn’t the problem - it is how we relate to our greed. Every small child has a mental list of presents they want, things they’ve seen they’d like. But what differentiates a normal kid from an extreme spoiled brat is their relationship to the reality of constraint. The brat resists constraint, the normal kid whines about it for a couple of minutes and then gets over it. The brat has never been taught that he doesn’t have the right to everything he wants. The normal kid has had that lesson pointed out a few times. It isn’t like one of the kids doesn’t want a giant Deathstar with real ray gun - the normal kid has just been told he’s not getting one and that he’d better behave about it, and he’s recognized that he might as well get over it.

So our future is one of greed, I promise. But it doesn’t have to be one of self-destructive greed. It is perfectly possible for us to turn the pleasure of avarice to acceptable sources, to sit around and be greedy for that new sweater or the yarn to make it with, for the cool tool or beautiful decorative item. It is possible for us to take exquisite pleasure in our greed, nursing our anticipation of the big thing for a long time, enjoying the fantasy of having and the pleasure of wanting.

The difference is the object of our greed. Instead of 5 sweaters, we can be greedy for one nice one. Instead of dreaming of a fancy car to make ourselves look spiffy, we can dream of a lush garden. Instead of greed for more money, we can be greedy for more time for sloth or lust, for writing angry letters to our editor or cooking to feed our gluttony. Greed, after all, isn’t so bad.

There are a few things we’re all going to have to give up. Monster car races. Weekends in Paris. Cholesterol fest at the Outback Steakhouse. But really, sinnin’ is here to stay, I promise!


Peak Oil 2005? 2007? 2010? 2012? Who the Heck Cares?

Sharon October 2nd, 2007

Ok, I’m about to pick on ASPO again. I can’t help it. First there was my reaction to the conference schedule, which looks exactly like last year’s conference schedule, and (here I suspect I can save some people the cost of a flight to Houston) can be summed up as “Peak Oil is Real Soon Now.” Then there was the conference theme, “A Time to React?” in the ASPO Europe Conference. (Note: I mistakenly wrote that this applied to ASPO-USA at first - my error). With a question mark on the end??!? Are these people out of their minds? I tried so hard not to pick on them any more - after all, we’re on the same side. But that question mark pushed me over the edge…

Note: Some people have assumed that since I’m speaking at the Community Solutions Conference that I’m in someway trying to represent their approach as comparatively better, or that I’m criticizing ASPO because I’m speaking at Community Solutions, doing a “my conference is better than yours” - something that never occurred to me until a poster mentioned it. That’s absolutely not the case. First of all, anyone who works at Community Solutions will tell you that I’m at least as much of a pain in the ass to them as I am to ASPO. I do agree with some of the things Community Solutions does, and not others, and you can count on me to say so loudly when I think they are wrong too. For example, I wasn’t too pleased to see Pat Murphy, Richard Heinberg and Julian Darley up on stage last year having an all-guy’s chat about what we should do about population, and I’ve said so publically several times. Secondly, this is my blog, and I speak only and always for myself, never as a representative of any group. I think the leaders of all such groups are duly grateful that they aren’t responsible for me ;-). It was never my intention to plug one conference by dissing another, and it still isn’t.

“Peak Oil is Real Soon Now” was pretty much the theme of last year’s Boston ASPO conference, and I admit, I see no real evidence that it won’t be repeated at every ASPO meeting, until we can officially change it over to “Peak Oil Was Just a While Back.” Looking over the list of panels, virtually all of them focus on one of three things.

The first is whether peak oil was Yesterday, is Tomorrow or next Thursday. Now this sounds like very important work, and is important if you have millions invested in oil wells, run India, or run Shell. To anyone else, it is largely a matter of complete and utter irrelevance. The reality is that real people are already experiencing the costs of peak oil - for example, it is the end of cheap oil that has led to the biofuels boom and to my grocery bill going haywire. This is only going to get worse - because of peak oil and climate change. But whether it gets worse slightly faster or slower really isn’t the point - the point is that we’re not doing anything about it. I’m willing to bet, however, that most of the Very Important People speaking at ASPO don’t actually buy their own groceries, so maybe they haven’t noticed.

The problem here is that ASPO hasn’t noticed that peak oil has gone mainstream (that question mark again), and is still under the impression that the very important work that petroleum geologists have done in recognizing that peak oil was near, and warning the world is work that should still be at the center of things. And I don’t mean to say here that their work is unimportant - but if ASPO has just one chance to pull people together to talk about peak oil, the date is far less urgent a subject than “where do we go from here?” It isn’t that there isn’t anything to talk about, it isn’t that people still aren’t debating peak oil. It is that the focus of the discussion has moved on from when to what to do, and ASPO hasn’t caught up.

This is not only bad for the public discourse, but IMHO, it isn’t very good for ASPO, either. Because they risk being rendered obsolete by their own data. ASPO has done the important work of establishing dates and reserves, but shortly, if their own estimates are right, when peak oil is will be an established, documentable fact - if it isn’t already. And while ASPO will then have the satisfaction of being right, it will also have the problem of being irrelevant, if it hasn’t taken a lead on the next step - where do we go from here?

As a purely practical matter, the Hirsch report demonstrates that we’re well behind the ball - close to twenty years behind. Given that truth, that we cannot expect an orderly adaptation, one would think that the major study center for peak oil would be figuring out how we could triage and adapt the most urgent areas first. Unfortunately, that’s not true. If ASPO wants to remain even remotely relevant, it needs to shift its focus, and lose the question mark - it is long past time to react. I understand that ASPO wishes to speak to the powerful and elite, and scaring them is bad for business. But telling the truth, even when unpalatable, is, I think, more important than looking friendly.

The second thing ASPO focuses on is making sure that rich people get to stay rich in a volatile market. If you have a few million dollars to invest in oil wildcatting, ASPO is the place to go. If you want to know which big businesses will boom in solar technology and biofuels, check out ASPO! If you don’t wish to endure the tragedy of seeing your hedge fund decline, ASPO is there to help. If, however, you don’t have large investments and are already just getting by, tough patooties. If you are wondering how to shift to a non-debt based economy, or resolve the consumption paradox, or even promote conservation, ASPO is not your friend.

Unless, of course, you have an exciting new technology to pimp. That’s the other thing that ASPO will do - they’ll tell you about the latest innovations in hybrid cars, light rail and nuclear power plants. If you are shopping for a high tech solution for your neighborhood, there’s a good chance that they’ve got something coming your way. I was assured by an ASPO board member that there won’t be any repeats of the Raytheon weapons designer who got up to sell his wife’s new oil extraction techniques (and I’m sure would take a few orders for tasers on the side) or the “environmentalist” wind farm guy who builds filthy diesel plants in poor neighborhoods, both of whom starred at last year’s ASPO, but there’s a heavy “investor recruitment” element in which corporations sell their new toys.

Is it all bad? No, I’ll give them credit for at least mentioning climate change and health care this year. And I honestly think that most of the people who run ASPO mean well. Their data analysis is terrific, and for people who are too lazy to read the papers on the internet and need to see middle aged men read them aloud to believe, there’s value. But the reality is that ASPO has found its niche - and it is in saying “we’re important, because we can tell you when…and we won’t scare you by saying anything significant has to change.” They are engaged in what James Kunstler has described as the notion that all we have to do is worry about keeping the cars on the road. And because most of them have access to an enormous amount of information that says otherwise, I find this particularly troubling. These are people who have read the data, and know that we’re too close to peak oil for an easy, smooth transition - and yet, they are still selling one, or at least they were at last year’s conference, and I don’t see any evidence that that’s changed.

There’s not a single mention of food or agriculture at ASPO that I can find, not a single mention of housing. No mention of povery abatement, the third world, ecology, justice or conservation. Not a single mention of education or health care, children or families. No mention of the people who are already experiencing the consequence of peak oil - the poor who are being priced out of energy in the third world, and the American poor who are suffering from high food and transportation prices. No mention of capitalism, and growth. No link to a single political figure who deals with health, welfare, education or the environment - even though we all know that the first effects of peak oil will be economic.

There’s no mention of the Oil Depletion Protocolo or any plan to get nations to adopt it or any other strategy for managing resources. At least ASPO Europe through Colin Campbell can boast of a real and meaningful policy plan that might make a difference, if we could get it applied. Where is such a plan from American peakists? I will give them points for upping the number of women speakers from 1 in 10 to 1 in 8. But ASPO, as far as I can tell, is still focused more on looking good to powerful people than telling the truth about peak oil, or than offering meaningful solutions.

And I still can’t get over that question mark. What on earth is there a question about?


Collateral Damage

Sharon October 1st, 2007

Roel sent me this open letter to Ken Burns this morning, and I thought it was worth posting here. The entire piece is here:, but here’s an excerpt:

‘The War,’ Mr. Burns, is the Yokosuka rape queues in August 1945, with GI’s lined up for blocks, two abreast, to get at the Japanese girls enslaved in ‘comfort stations’ for them—with the full cooperation of the American and Japanese authorities. Destitute, vulnerable girls were raped into unconsciousness as the men joked and laughed and jostled in line, waiting their turn. Some girls bled to death. Some committed suicide—that is, the lucky ones who could escape. Not one ‘comfort girl’ has told her story—due to shame. Why did you not tell this particular ‘intimate history’ of ‘The War,’ Mr. Burns? Especially since ‘usage’ of the girls was almost 100%. Why has the small detail that almost every GI in Japan, 1945, was a rapist escaped you? Why his this big ‘dirty secret’ of war never been covered?

‘The War,’ Mr. Burns, is the men who lined up to use the prostitutes on Hotel Street in Honolulu: women were raped 100 times a day—a different man entered the girl every three minutes. Why should I mourn these rapists when they were killed in the attack at Pearl Harbor? They slaughtered the bodies of these women in a fashion far more brutal than any bombing could ever be.

The War,’ Mr. Burns, is the widespread rape of French girls by GI’s after they ‘liberated’ Paris. Rape by American soldiers was so common that Eisenhower actually had to acknowledge it was happening, although he did nothing to stop

‘The War’ is the public parks in Palermo, where pimps considerately laid out mattresses so the GI’s could fuck starving Italian girls comfortably, for a dollar or two a turn.

The War’ is homeless, prostituted girls in Berlin doing it in the rubble for a few cents and agreeing to ‘share’ a GI bed so they would simply have a place to sleep that night. This, after they had already had the insides raped out of them by the invading Russian army and then were labeled ‘whores’ since it was a convenient way for the authorities to deal with these ‘ruined’ women.”"

The back story of human history is the story of anyone not exciting enough to be a star - the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and especially women. And the stars often get carte blanche to inflict as much “collateral” damage as they’d like in the pursuit of our goals - and that that is part of the *point* of many of our actions. That is, as Bosnia and Abu Ghraib and other recent atrocities have pointed out to us - destroying civilian lives, torturing people, raping women - those are part of the point of war, and part of the point of taking political power. They are not accidents, they are not collateral - instead, when we show our power and our strength, we show it by hurting the vulnerable.

I do not agree with the writer’s claim that war is a particularly male perversion, nor do I think that none of what Burns so lovingly portrays about heroics is true - say rather that the two are simultaneously, horrifyingly, the truth, and that that is what history is - the juxtaposition of all the truths. But I do think that we must open our eyes to “collateral” damage and recognize that it is not accidental, or unintentional. For example, the collateral damage we in the rich world do to the poor world is not merely an expression of unintentional harm, but is avoidable, and operates to show our power and our wealth.

I worry about women’s future after peak oil and climate change. As all over the world we get hungrier and poorer, and wars break out over food and water and fossil fuels, women will pay the price in ways that men won’t. Women are always poorer than men. Hunger drives women to prostitution, war legitimizes rape, poverty make the protection of the weak a low priority. Climate change will play itself out in laboratories and in news stories about drought. It will only rarely appear as news stories about young girls sold into sexual slavery because their families can’t feed them. Peak oil will appear in the news as war in the middle east and stories of gas shortages - but only rarely in the form of women raped by soldiers. When food starts going short, we will speak loudly of how awful overpopulation is, but only rarely of how often women are powerless to control their own bodies. But the truth is that the sheer numbers of scientists holding press conferences will be vastly smaller than the number of girls weeping after the first man rapes them.

I once read a review of _Saving Private Ryan_ that observed that in our new glorification of “the good war” we seem to have forgotten all the lessons of “the bad war” - that is, Vietnam. That is, that the message of World War II movies is that the greatest horror of war is the bad things that can happen to you in war. The message of Vietnam movies is that the greatest horror of war is the bad things war requires you to do to other people. And as we’ve replaced Vietnam movies with a preference (who wouldn’t prefer them) for World War II movies, we’ve shaken off the underlying recognition that in some ways, death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us - that becoming the evil you are supposed to be resisting is worse.

We cannot afford the war we are in now, much less any future wars. We cannot afford the dead and lost soldiers, and we cannot afford the moral destruction of making a generation of soldiers into people who will commit atrocities. We cannot afford the artificial division of families into those at home waiting, or those at home prostituting themselves for food, and those off fighting and visiting prostitutes. We cannot afford the notion that the vulnerable, the poor, the sick, the old and women are acceptable collateral damage as we struggle to keep our cars on the road. We cannot afford to be the kind of people who know only the front room history, and keep the rest of the truth hidden in back, under a stack of corpses.

We cannot afford to lie to ourselves about the past or about the future. We cannot afford a simple version of history. We cannot afford to take the anger of those who suffer “collateral” damage for granted, if only because they are us. All of us are either women or have women we love in our lives. All of us will someday be old, most of us will someday be poor, each of us has been a child, each has had or will have moments of sickness and debility. And even if it never comes to us, it will transform us, either into the kind of people who resist destroying others with all their might, or the kind of people who accept it, and silence the voice of history.

About a year ago, I wrote “Peak Oil is a Women’s Issue” because I was worried that in the rhetoric about energy, we were losing sight of a major part of how peak oil would play out. I am even more certain that that is true today - that as long as our discussion focuses on electric rail, hybrid cars and getting solar panels on the homes of the middle class, we are losing the battle to protect ordinary people, from the consequences of ordinary poverty and ordinary hungry, and that a majority of the victims will be women and girls, elderly people and the disabled, whose history and voices simply get shoved to the back room.


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