Pretend, for a moment that we're in a very crowded theater watching a movie. But, the movie is incredibly good - best and most exciting movie we have ever seen. Drama, excitement, and periodically, people in the audience are actually getting rich. This is NOT the kind of movie you want to leave before the surprise ending you can see building. It's many movies on many screens, all playing in a sensory overloading way. Still, there's a wisp of smoke in the air…
My early education concerning peak energy and climate change centered on learning facts. The world consumes X million barrels of oil or X parts per million of some such greenhouse gas is likely to lead to an X increase in global temperature. Most of it was scary to someone who had grown up thinking in linear terms, someone who had been told by almost everyone that tomorrow would a lot like today only things will be better because everything will be bigger, work faster and be more widely available. Let’s just say I wasn’t reading Limits to Growth in high school. When I was little I did wonder how humans could continue to break the laws of nature so recklessly. But like many other Americans I chalked it up to human intelligence.
Now having spent years reading and writing, listening and talking, learning and teaching others about a whole host of topics that range from urban agriculture to bike culture, a curious thing has happened. I've recognized that no matter how hard I try I will not be entirely ready to leave this consumer culture, no matter what happens, until it more fully collapses. That is, it will never completely end. That doesn't really explain what I'm trying to say. Here let me have another go.
My preparation for what I believe is in store for Industrial Civilization (a steady overall decline with a few quick drops thrown in for excitement) eventually led me back to my old idea of convergence. The idea of a self converging personality nearly drove me crazy in my first year at university. I left the nest and struggled heartily with who I was supposed to be; as if there was a perfect person if only I could become him. But after wrestling with this for quite some time I discovered life for me wasn't going to be about converging at all. It wasn't about becoming a 6' - 2" architect with a wife, 2 kids and that perfect picket fence people are always talking about. It was in fact the opposite. Life was about diverging, about expanding not contracting. I like to learn and do new things and try different experiences. So much so that to try and contain myself, even if that containment is centered around a prudent response to a fundamental change in our way of life here in America, just doesn't work.
It's not acceptable for me to respond to peak oil and climate change by creating a new model of just exactly what I should be and then focusing most or all of my energy on becoming that model, a 6' -2" urban farming bicycle rider who doesn't eat meat. It's not that farming or riding a bike or being a vegetarian are bad things in and of themselves. But I think recently I slipped back into a mode of preparation that excludes not only some time wasting activities I used to do for fun but also has strained my relationships with other people who haven't been willing to make change quite as rapidly as I have. I built a mold and then I worked to press myself into that mold as quickly as possible. My direction of change is already proving itself prudent. But my method of change, not so much. To some extent it has depressed me out of my formerly cheerful wandering ways and this I lament.
I once sent a friend a message by carefully cracking open willow oak acorns (think very small) and putting into each one of them a tiny piece of paper and then supergluing the nut back together so it appeared unopened. One letter of the alphabet went into each of about a dozen acorns which were mailed to my friend who eventually figured it out, opened them up and pieced together a completely different message than the one I had intended. In a strange coincidence the new message meant almost the same thing as the originally message had intended one. But I don't send special messages in acorns anymore. In fact I don't collect acorns in the fall as often as I have been known to in the past. No goofing off when peak oil is just around the corner!
Now there's wasting time and then there's wasting time. I'm not going back to watching Wheel of Fortune on weekday evenings. But I think what I've discovered is that what's most important about addressing energy descent and climate change is a change of mind. That might sound a bit cliché but it really is true. What I've learned by adopting new skills and more knowledge is that being open to change- actually inviting it in for dinner and a conversation when it knocks on the door- is the key to being able to handle that change. We can handle a world with less energy. We can handle a world with some fluctuations in climate. Some challenges are going to be difficult. I'm not going all Pollyanna on you but it seems like the most difficult part for most people is accepting that things are changing. We have peaked in oil production and largely wrecked our biosphere but we mustn't shrug from the challenge of change, and it must happen first in our minds if it's going to happen at all.
That’s all good and well I can hear you saying. It sounds easy but I know it is not. I will even assume that some of you reading this will not bring yourselves to initiate the changes of a lower energy lifestyle until you are forced into that change by situation. And I feel bad for you because in the end, the changes won't be nearly as bad as anticipated. Like a math test or breaking up with a love interest, the worst part is the dread leading up to it.
Take for instance this riding-my-bike change I’ve made. It isn’t a pain in the ass. It's actually great. If little green women arrive tomorrow from the planet Xervzeron and offer us a source of unlimited energy that can fuel our fleet of automobiles with no damage to the environment what so ever I will still ride my bike to work next week because it is just more fun than driving a car. Alright I might drive on rainy days in January but my point stands. Biking is just better than driving. We've adopted some really silly habits as a result of cheap energy and breaking them, like breaking any habit, can be difficult. But it starts with the idea that you can change, that it is possible. The hard part is deciding to decide.
I am very fearful of what will happen when it suddenly becomes apparent to most people that the theater is in fact on fire. The metaphoric run for the exits could get ugly. In a way it already has. Those in power in this country understand that our way of life is based on oil and have sent our armed forces (and a lot of other hired guns) to try and keep control over the last great quantity of oil. But I'm talking here about the reaction of Average Joe and Average Jane America when they find out that they can't drive huge cars and eat grapes from Chile in December and that suddenly they're poor because their country’s economy has imploded. And I think that will happen. The most noticeable effect of energy descent early on (and then a little later climate change) will be economic implosion. Our economy is after all based on expansion and will not work well as resource availability contracts. But as contraction is forced upon us in terms of material goods and all the resources needed to create them, we have the opportunity to reverse our thinking; to allow our minds to imagine again other possibilities. We can choose to expand our minds even as our economy contracts.
Which is a long winded way of saying that I think I need to broaden my plan to include not just one strategy but more of an idea of flexibility. It’s a balancing act because I don't want to spend time on activities that will be useless in a few years but inherent in that statement is the idea that I know what will happen in a few years. I have an idea of what will happen. I think I have a better idea than those folks who think a few years from now will look like today only things will be better because everything will be bigger, work faster and be more widely available. I now understand a crucial idea left out of my early education- limits. But I don't know exactly what the future will look like so how can I say exactly what I should be doing as those limits show up?
Instead I’m developing parallel strategies that will keep me flexible. One will hedge against a collapse of the dollar and severe and rapid changes to American society just in case that happens. This translates into activities like putting more food away and saving money outside of the formal banking system. Another strategy though will focus on fun and happy changes that are just better for me like riding a bike and cooking with whole ingredients. And yet another will focus on enjoing life as it exists now. This might include driving a car on a date with my wife where we eat food even though we don’t know where it came from. Later we might see a movie made about all that is American in the very first part of the 21st century. It is important for me to strengthen my relationships with people in my life who are significant to me even if they have yet to commit to some of the other changes I am making. And even if I am hoping they will make more change soon. This will mean keeping one foot in the mainstream world even as I prepare for something different. And that’s ok, it’s important until the future revels itself a little more fully.
I guess what I'm saying is that I'm trying to view my response in more broad terms now because I can't be sure of what will actually happen. It seems prudence to blend making change, having fun and taking up the challenges of being ready if more serious disaster descends.
To end this afternoon’s ramble I’d like to return to the idea of the movie mentioned at the beginning of this story; the fascinating show that keeps most Americans mesmerized and completely oblivious to that ‘faint wisp of smoke in the air.’ When I was younger I used to attend movies by myself. On one particular evening while at University I went to see a late night movie and sat through almost all of it. I don’t remember the name of the film but it wasn’t particularly good. I had a lot on my mind and was having trouble paying attention. So, near the end I simply got up and walked out of the theater. It was a brisk, fall night and I remember the cool air and sudden rush at being outside in the dark and in the silent grassy courtyard next to the school theater. I sat down on a bench and was alone with my thoughts. Everyone else was watching the last of the show. And then after 20 minutes or so, with my nose now pink from the cold, people started to trickle out of the building. They emerged from the movie and I was no longer by myself outside. For the life of me I can’t remember what I was thinking after I abandoned the movie but I remember the shock of getting out; the images gone, the sounds gone, the peacefulness of loneliness and the loneliness of loneliness. And when the movie was finished and I was no longer alone, I remember being happy it was over.