[permaculture] Time to pick up our hats?
SArjuna at aol.com
SArjuna at aol.com
Thu Jul 12 14:38:47 EDT 2007
When I read the article pasted on below, I was moved to also share the
When we share about our plans to move to SW Wisconsin and create a
permaculture farm where we and others can live as sustainably as possible, some
people comment that they believe one should never move out of fear, but only if
one would enjoy living elsewhere more than they enjoy where they are now.
This brings up some interesting questions. The main one in my own
mind is what is it that makes the above belief appear rational to those who hold
it? If you live where an incoming hurricane or a rumbling volcano threatens
your home, is it sensible not to be afraid?
We live out in the country fairly near a railroad crossing. One day I
heard a train approaching, then a sound I had never heard before, a very loud
metallic screeching sound that lasted for quite a few seconds. "I bet that's
the train braking for somebody in the crossing," I thought, and beat it down
to the crossing, which is not in a populated area, in case I could be of
assistance. It turned out that the young man driving the car hit by the train had
indeed seen it coming, but somehow didn't think it would hit him. Across
the top of his smashed windshield was a large decal that said "No Fear!"
It happens that the farm we are creating will allow us to live the
lifestyle that has been my ideal for decades, and that it's in an absolutely
beautiful place. However, in all honesty I don't know whether we'd have taken
on the huge project of pulling up roots and moving across the state if we had
not had a good bit of apprehension about how un"enjoyable" our lives might
become shortly if we didn't take some positive action now.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Monday, July 09, 2007
Pick Up Your Hat
Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
Way back in college, I read a short story by Robert Heinlein that I've never
been able to find again. In it, a bartender is standing at his bar, when two
nuclear scientists come in. They are talking about the immanent danger of
nuclear attack on the US, and the bartender gets scared. He asks them whether they
really believe what they are saying, and then says something along the lines
of "If you really believed that, you wouldn't be sitting here drinking, you'd
get out of the target area right now." The scientists assure the bartender
that everything is really that serious, and then list a host of reasons why they
can't leave right now. The bartender, convinced, picks up his hat and walks
out of the bar and city right then, leaving all his connections behind. And this
being fiction, just as he gets outside the city limits, he starts to question
his own instincts, and he tries to make a phone call (or something), only to
see the mushroom cloud go up behind him.
Now life very rarely justifies our assumptions so rapidly, but I find this
story interesting because it illustrates just how hard it is to live your life
as though you believe bad things are going to happen to you. Even when we know
they are likely, even when we see things forthcoming, it is awfully hard to
pick up our hats and set aside one set of options to pursue another.
Particularly when there's little cultural support for it - when the assumption that even
basic preparedness makes you a wacko is so prevalent. The story struck me,
long before I discovered peak oil or climate change, because I wondered how it is
one knows that *now* is the time to pick up one's hat. I was struck, for
example, by the dilemma of the Jews who left Germany - how do you know that the
worst is really here? My husband's grandmother was on the kindertransport, that
took German-Jewish children to England. She wasn't even 13, and her parents
put her on a train with one suitcase and sent her off to a far away country to
be raised by someone else. It saved her life. A cousin of hers, living in the
same neighborhood in the ghetto stayed with her parents - they thought the risk
of harm coming to her in England was greater than the risk of harm in
Germany. That cousin died in the concentration camps, and Inge, Eric's grandmother,
survived. How do you know it is time to risk so much?
Now if any of you read Matt Savinar over at
http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/Index.html, you could argue that on nearly every measure, Matt's much more
apocalyptic in his thinking than I am. He writes under the name "Juris Doctor
of Doom" and he makes the argument that we should just follow the money trail
- he says, "we're spending billions to fix problems we spend trillions
creating." Matt forsees a real apocalyptic disaster, whereas I tend to talk a lot
about what we can do to mitigate disaster, and I tend to think mostly in terms of
poverty, rather than anything I'd call "apocalypse." In that sense, it would
seem that Matt's a "doomer" and I'm not.
But it isn't that simple. If you read Matt's writings, you'll see he's
currently on a hunt for the perfect place to live in the post peak world, at the
very same time that he posts "we may only have 18 months left (this was a few
months ago)." Right now, he's living in a place that he admits probably won't do
very well. And Matt knows as well as I do that building community, and food
systems, getting accepted in an area, and getting trees to fruiting and getting
practiced in meeting many of your needs really takes time. I've been doing it
for going on 7 years now, and I'm still hoping for more time. If you look at
our words, Matt's got a far darker vision than I have. If you look at our
actions, Matt's risking a whole lot more than I'm prepared to. I picked up my hat a
long time ago. Matt's just now ready to pick up his.
I'm not picking on Matt Savinar, or anyone else. Heck, I don't know the
future, and Matt may well be wiser than I am. Also, given that he doesn't have
kids, is more mobile and has more money than I do, he's probably making the right
choice for him. I mention this not because I think Matt doesn't believe what
he says - I'm sure he does - but because all of us are hedging our bets to one
degree or another, and also because even when you believe it, it can be damned
hard to keep the link between hypothetical futures and reality alive in your
head and your thinking.
Like everyone, I make my risk analyses based on my reality, and other people
have to make theirs on their own. I judge based on my own assessments - do I
believe the IPCC or Hansen? Do I believe CERA or Simmons and Assoc. on peak
oil? Whom do I choose to track? And what are my priorities? For me, protecting my
kids is #1, and everything else is a distant second. But even that leads me
to one set of solutions, not another. I could, for example, believe that what
was needed was a ton of guns and total isolation, or that I would be best
protecting my kids by converting to Christianity and fitting in in middle America,
or by making a lot of money and protecting them by living in a gated
community. And honestly, it is conceivable that any of those strategies might be right
- and my "build community, grow food" theory might be entirely wrong, or I
just might be unlucky. Like everyone else, I'm playing the odds.
The post I wrote yesterday, arguing that people should start living now like
they may have to in the long term for selfish reasons got some people quite
concerned. They felt that I was either panicking or driving other people to
panic. To a large degree that wasn't my intention, but I did intend to create a
sense of urgency.
I do want people who read this to think seriously about whether they have a
viable back up plan for a crisis that begins in the near future. Why? Not
because I think the whole world is likely to collapse, but because I think any
collapse will come in stages and segments. For a Katrina victim, it may already
have happened. For me it might be tomorrow. For you, it might wait a decade. We
don't know - we're playing the odds.
I do want people who read this to thrive in the future, and if you think I'm
a wacko, so be it. I tend to think that after Katrina, in an inflationary
economy, someone who says "store food, plan ahead, get ready now" might not look
like the Unibomber, but I might not be much of a judge ;-).
I think I'd rather have you believe that I'm a nutcase than believe that I
always and only think "we can do it" and thus, don't encourage you to hedge your
bets. And I genuinely do believe that we are fairly close to a situation in
which many of us will be most concerned with just getting by, and the things
that a lot of us might want or need to do to live comfortably with much less are
going to be less and less available to us. I think we can change many things,
and fairly quickly at that - but I'm not at all certain that we will - and I
don't want to bet my life on what Brian called, in comments "the political
will fairy." I sure as heck don't want you to bet your future on "my" vision of
the political will fairy ;-).
Why do I think that we need to start picking up our hats right now, and
making the changes that we're going to have to make anyway right now? Well, at this
point it still looks like world oil production may have peaked over two years
ago - OPEC simply doesn't seem to be able to increase production. Mexico is
experiencing double digit declines, and will stop exporting oil altogether
shortly. While some new production capacity is coming online, I think we're at the
bumpy plateau. That means over the long term, oil prices keep going up
forever - they may trend down again a few times, but when they level off, they'll be
higher...and higher...and higher.
Natural gas prices have been rising slowly, but mostly because we've had a
series of mild winters. One cold one, and we can expect much higher heating
costs. Natural gas is set to peak in the next decade, the US has already had its
peak and Canada is next. Coal is not far behind. Peaking means rising costs,
increasing difficulty getting at it, and a lower return on investment - more and
more energy gets eaten up just getting the oil or coal out of the ground. And
we're seeing nations that are energy producers reserving more and more of
what they do have for themselves - eventually, they stop exporting, and other
nations have to make do with what they have. The US's oil reserves peaked more
than 30 years ago, our gas almost a decade ago, and most likely our coal has
peaked as well.
Energy isn't the only thing getting pricier. Food is too. First of all, the
good food we're all supposed to be eating does cost more than industrial crap.
But even the crap is going way up in price, mostly because of energy costs,
but also because of drought (climate-change induced in many cases),
desertification and soil destruction, and falling yields in many places in the world. I
don't think that trend is gong to change for quite a while - food prices will
continue to rise because we're putting our food in our gas tanks, and because
our food costs are dependent on cheap energy - which is over. That means that
food you buy now and store is a good bet to be cheaper. And food you grow
yourself is an even better one. Stores won't save you - but they can help a little.
Meanwhile, we're on the verge of some deep economic trouble, and a large
number of people believe we're headed for a recession. A lot of them are fairly
reputable people who ought to know - Greenspan, for example, has been
manipulating the US economy for a long time, and he thinks it is likely we'll experience
recession by year's end. Now recessions come and recessions go - but if no
big boom of growth comes along to fix them, they don't go. And with less and
less available cheap energy, and more and more time spent just fixing problems
like climate change created environmental disasters, resource wars and energy
shortages, we have less capital to adapt with. The Bank for International
Settlements, the world's most significant financial body has warned we're in danger
of another Great Depression - this is not their ordinary message, nor is it
Greenspan's. That's bad news for us - and a long-lasting recession during the
period in which we're adapting to climate change and peak oil could mean that we
really do mostly have what we've already got, that all our dreams of an
orderly transition are over.
Add climate change to that. Yesterday, we learned that the drought in the
Southwest is expected to last another century. Think about that. There are 60
million Americans there, plus another 60 million Mexicans in the affected area.
How long can they stay there? Where will they go? Add to that the people on the
Gulf coast and in South Florida - all of whom are vulnerable to the next big
disaster we can't afford to stop or fix, and there are going to be a lot of
migrants just in this nation alone in the next decade or so. That's going to
change the economy, your local job market, and a whole host of things. BILLIONS
of people are going to be refugees within their countries or from outside them
by 2050 - and it won't all happen in 2049 - that means real people, real us,
are going to start being affected today.
James Hansen and the other NASA scientists who argue that we don't have much
time say that we only have a decade to fix this - a decade to make the
"draconian" changes that would stop the worst sea rises. Let's say we do make good on
all those measures - what will that be like? What will it be like when 300
million people have to slash their personal emissions to the bone? I'd tend to
bet on some competition for resources, and lots of price rises - at the time
that most of us can least afford them.
The thing is, things seem ok on many levels. We may believe that these are
crises, but life is still going on. the kids are still in college, the money is
still piling up in the 401K, the stock market is still hanging, and we all
have a life going on. We're still caught between the life now and the life to
come, and it can be damned hard to navigate that distinction. All of us have to
figure out what we believe, and hedge our bets as best we can. But it is damned
hard to know what to do. Do we pick up our hats, put our kids on the train,
give up the present for the hypothetical future? How do we know that something
won't pull off a miracle?
One of my commentors pointed out that my prior post created an urge to hoard,
to preserve one's own, rather than think communally. Now I grasp that urge.
My first reaction to peak oil, many, many years ago, was precisely the same. I
had it again when I had my first child, and I have it again every time I worry
about my kids. And I did pick up my hat. I blew off my Ph.d in order to start
a small farm - I thought for a long time I could have it both ways, but it
became increasingly clear that I couldn't, and so I gave up Shakespeare, which
was sad in some ways. I closed some options off. We made some bets on what our
kids will need - our money is more in land than in the stock market, so who
knows what we'll have to do if nothing bad happens when the boys want to go to
college. We can't have everything, and we've made our choices, and we have to
live with them.
But we also can't choose all the way every time - so we hedge. We put money
away for college, and we also put money back into the land. If I had to pick
one, I'll tell the truth - I don't think the college dollars will be there in a
decade. But I'm not willing to risk my kids entirely on my predictions. I quit
my Ph.d, but in part because I love farming and writing, and I wanted to do
those too - I didn't just dump it. I invest in community support, but I also
have a stockpile of clothes for bigger kids, and educational books for children
so that my kids can learn at home through the college level and so they have
shoes to wear and don't have to dress in the ugly things I can sew if the worst
happens. I don't believe I can stockpile my way out of anything really bad -
but I also store food as a hedge, a way of dealing with extended family that
might need extras, crop failures, my own mistakes.
We all know people who were prepared for Y2K, had nuclear bunkers, went back
to the land because the end was at hand in the 1970s, have been expecting the
last coming for decades. And it is tempting, because of those factors, to
think that the system is strong enough to endure any crisis. And who knows, it may
be. I'm not a prophet - I don't know the future. But look back a little. In
the course of a lifetime, ask yourself if your grandparents, and
great-grandparents ever endured a time of crisis during the course of their lifetimes.
Again, we're not talking about Mad Max here - we're talking about poverty, war,
economic disruption, having to leave a beloved place for a new one, epidemic,
hunger, want. Now maybe none of your family has ever had those things, but
looking back at my grandparents and great-grandparents, I see 2 world wars and a
host of smaller ones. Hunger. Want. Poverty. Desperation. Dislocation.
Refugeeism. Violence. Disease. Death. And thoes were the lucky ones, who survived to
have kids and grandkids. The generations after World War II are among the first
in human history to live their whole lives in peace, wealth and good fortune.
Should we bet that we too will be so fortunate? And what's the price if we're
That last question is the real bugger, isn't it? And that's the one that I
rest on, my own private version of the precautionary principle. That is, in
trying to decide whether James Hansen or the IPCC is right, ultimately, I find
that the price of believing in Hansen and being wrong is a lot lower than the
price of believing the IPCC and being wrong in my choice. I think the evidence
for Hansen's reading is probably better, but the cost in lives and the future of
not making changes quickly is almost certainly greater than the admittedly
high price of making them sooner. The same is true about personal preparedness.
What if I don't do it? Sometimes the price is low and light. Sometimes it
Ultimately, what has to happen is that we find ways to be prepared, and to
hedge our bets, without compromising many of our basic principles. This means
that we prepare for a future that doesn't work out very well, while also trying
to build a future in which it does. That's harder than choosing just one, but
I think it is also necessary. That means we buy local, organic, sustainably
grown bulk foods for our storage, and fill out those clothing bins with used
goods, not new ones. It means we make the new purchases we do need judiciously -
yes, perhaps, to the grain grinder, no to the fancy butter churn when a shaken
jar will do as well.
I want everyone who reads this to make their own choices based on their own
experience, their own reading of the data available to them, their own needs
and personal circumstances and their own ability to change. My bet is that
change will come soon to some of us, later to others, but that the changes I'm
worried about are now essentially already in motion - that whatever happens, we're
probably never going to be quite as comfortable or priveleged or lucky or
ready as we are today. That sucks for all of us - others even more than me. I
want time. But I don't think that I can live my life based on my own want for it
- that's wish fulfillment fantasies. Ultimately, my life needs to find a
balance between preparing for hard times and attempting to avoid them, between
living now and being ready to live in the future. Everyone will choose a different
balance. Everyone will make different bets. Everyone will read the future a
little differently. And some of us will be wrong - quite possibly me. It is
impossible to be prepared for everything, but it is not only possible but wise to
prioritize and prepare for many outcomes.
In the end, my own analysis comes down to this. If I'm wrong about what's
coming down the pike, what price did I pay? I never got to be a professor of
English Literature. My kids may have to earn college scholarships, or we may have
to mortgage our land. We may have missed out on some opportunities. But
generally speaking, I have a life I love now, work I love now, a family that I
wouldn't be able to enjoy as much if I were doing the full time academic life. I
have an imperfect degree of security, but a vastly greater one than I could have
had otherwise. In the net, the limitations of my choices are endurable. If
I'd chosen otherwise, would I be able to say the same? I might love my work, but
the risks to my kids future are unacceptable to me. Others would make a
different choice, and I don't know if they are wrong - only time will tell.
If it were me, I'd at a minimum make a serious backup plan for what to do if
your five or ten year plan fails. That is, I'd be ready now to live where you
are, with what you have. And if you don't think staying where you are is
possible, I think I'd risk relocating. But I'm not you, and I don't want you to do
it because I say so - make your own decisions.
What I can say is this. If you see the evidence much the same way I do, if
you really believe it, then it really is time to pick up your hat, or at least
memorize the train schedule heading wherever you want to be.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
If anyone knows the title of the Heinlein story Sharon refers to, please
let me know?
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