Archive for September 18th, 2008

Practice Losing Farther, Losing Faster: Everyday History in a Crashing Economy

Sharon September 18th, 2008

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/so many things seem filled with the intent/to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster/of lost door keys, the hour badly spent/The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:/places, and names, and where it was you meant/ to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch And look! my last or/next-to-last, of three loved houses went./The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,/ some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent/I miss them but it wasn’t a disaster.

- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture/I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident./the art of losing’s not too hard to master/thought it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

- Elizabeth Bishop 

I thought it might be worth getting a discussion going on how this looks to all of us.  It is hard to know exactly where we’re headed - whether this is the first step in a long slide or the beginning of a fairly rapid reorganization that moves us to a much lower level - or both.  In some senses, as I’ve always argued, it doesn’t really matter - all the discussions of whether we’re like Rome or whatnot can help us gauge the comprehensive sweep of history, and the way it will be looked at going backwards.  They can remind us that history, while lived, is experienced both more slowly and more rapidly than most of us can really process.  But historic sweeps don’t really tell any more of the larger story than localized narratives - for someone who moves from lower middle class rapidly to starvation (as happened quite a lot during the Depression), the world *did* collapse. Sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly - but the large sweep of history can’t really account for the not-insubstantial percentage of those who have already had collapse or are on the brink of it.  For those who died for reasons that seemed mad to them based on their prior worldview, the world *did* fall apart, the apocalypse did come, the horsemen came marching.  In some neighborhoods, in some places, right now, any claim that peak oil and its related financial disaster won’t really be as bad as we said, that it will take a century or two, would be laughed off rather as the dead killed in the first sacks of Rome might laugh at the idea that Rome wouldn’t fall for a good long time yet.  Falling is all a matter of perspective.

The problem with sweeping historical views is that ultimately, they must come down to a narrative account that has to be summed up by “the poor are always with us” - that is, the first stop on the disaster train is always to make those who were just barely getting by move to hell, and not get by any more.  Some of them die, and some of them just suffer hideously.  If we imagine that the disaster has only taken place when a significant portion of the most privelege have been equally discommoded, if the stockbrokers have to be as hungry as the janitors, we will indeed be waiting generations for the disaster.  In fact, most likely we will miss it altogether - we will say “but there were always poor and hungry” as though the fact that there are more, that the world really is falling apart for a percentage of the populace doesn’t matter.  After all, history tends to be written by the educated and priveleged, not those who eat out of garbage cans.  An account of the experience that sees it through the eyes of the earliest victims is in many ways as legitimate as an overarching view, narrated back - but far quieter.

Most of my readers will recognize John Michael Greer’s _Long Descent_ as the clearest articulation of the sweeping historical vision, and I truly think it is one of the best peak oil books ever written.  It provides a useful corrective to a perspective that is real, if not quite as widespread as I believe Greer thinks it is.  And it seems to be truly penetrating the narrative of peak oil discussions in a deeply productive way, which pleases me.  I do, however, think it is worth articulating the ways in which a larger vision might also be unhelpful to us - not because I think Greer’s work itself is insufficiently nuanced, but because the versions of stories we tell to ourselves about how the world works always gets oversimplified.  As people read his book and begin to nod and recognize that perhaps the zombies aren’t actually on the march yet, I think there’s a danger that some people may give up getting zombie-ready ;-) .  This (and I assume you all know that by “zombie ready” I mean “increasing pantry and warm clothes” not “home-scale tactical nukes”), I think, could be dangerous for the people most likely to be impoverished, to experience peak oil as a true collapse - because there are always early victims, often large categories of them, who experience their world as collapsing, because their particular sphere of it is.  And IMHO, it is always wisest to assume you might be one of them.  If not, you can enjoy being pleasantly surprised and donate your preparations to others who were not so blessed.

My own interest, I admit, is in what might be described as the “underarching narrative” - that is the experiences of ordinary people as their losses accellerate.  I’ve been watching people send me personal stories of foreclosure, their first visits to a food pantry, their fears of death by freezing and hunger, the job losses, the increasing desperation.  And under the overarching narrative, their experience provides a useful, and terrible corrective to the sense that we are just beginning something.  We are, of course, but just as we are beginning the disaster as a whole, those who always stood closest to the precipice are falling firmly into the hole, and crashing to the bottom. 

So I thought it would be worth asking my readers - what is your experience so far?  Are you watching the markets with polite interest or watching your children’s college funds and your retirement disappear?  Are you already unemployed, or are things still booming?  What does the world look like in your neighborhood.  It is not all the story there is to tell, but it is part of the historical narrative too - what we experience now is part of, not a single story, but the thousands of historical narratives that will arise from these events.