2011 Ahead – Use Low Gear

Everyone who lives in or has traveled through the mountainous states is familiar with this traffic warning sign. It tells us that the laws of gravity are about to test the limits of our vehicle, and we had better slow down, gear down and test the brakes slightly before proceeding. Otherwise we may find that the combination of the best engineered brakes, and our driving skill are no match for the downgrade ahead. I think 2011 and 2012 will be the same for us, we need to gear down now before it is too late and we crash in a heap somewhere on the road ahead.
Let’s take a close look at the vehicle of life that has been transporting us reliably for many years on this fossil fuel that many have been warning us about for many years. We have been happily motoring along at 70mph for some time. The road has been fairly level for some time now, a few curves here and there, but otherwise it has been an uneventful trip for most. When we look closer, we see that our tires still have some tread on them, but they are pretty worn. The engine is running smoothly, but doesn’t have the same get up and go it had years ago it seems. The brakes still bring us to a smooth stop on level ground, but they haven’t been tested with a load on a steep descent, so we are not completely confident that they won’t fade away when we need them the most. But yet we keep running along at full speed, past the first warning sign, then the second. Now we have come to the warning sign above. It is decision time. Do we trust our worn tires, manmade brakes and our driving skill to navigate us through this long descent without slowing down too much? Or do we ignore our manmade schedule of where we think we have to get to by the end of the year, and gear down, slow down, cinch up our seat belt and use every bit of skill to navigate the road ahead?

Our cargo? Everyone goes through life with some “baggage”. That trailer in back of you is filled with your hopes, aspirations, skills, failures, upsets, family, friends, adversaries, fortunes, debts and other “stuff” you have picked up along the way. The trailer may be heavy or light, but it is tied to you, and gravity is using it to push you harder down the descent. It’s a pretty sure bet you won’t be able to traverse this descent with a full load, even in low gear.
While you are at the top of the grade in 2011, you need to look at the contents of that trailer and decide if any of it can be offloaded before we start down the grade. We know we will need skills, family and friends in that trailer. But will we need that ski boat? Or RV? Or vacation home? Or any more debt? Debt will be the heaviest item in our trailer. Anything we can unload to reduce that debt in the trailer will help us get further down the grade safely.
So when we gear down for 2011, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to walk to the grocery store every week, although that might be a good learning exercise. It does mean we need to lock up the credit cards, and resist the urge to buy another something just because it looks “nice” or it might be “fun”. Start putting the brakes on now while you can and use low gear to start applying more to your debt weight reduction. The more you reduce the force trying to accelerate you down the energy descent, the better your chances will be at traveling down the energy descent with some amount of safety.
Many knowledgeable folks in the energy and economic arenas are telling us that the there is a steep descent ahead, while many in leadership roles are telling you there is good road ahead, buy, buy, buy. Your job in the next 12 months is to decide how much further you can go at the speed you are traveling before trying to downshift, stop and unload as much as possible before proceeding. Wait too long, and your ride may be more frightening than it should be, and you may not safely traverse the road ahead.

Next stop—–2011.

Chuck

Review: “Prelude” by Kurt Cobb

Writing a good novel is an exceedingly difficult task. I know. I’ve attempted to write one, and got so disgusted I buried it away, and would have burned it but couldn’t bear to print it out. So despite the fact that Kurt Cobb has written important essays and been a wonderful resource to the Peak Oil community, as co-founder of ASPO-USA, his foray into fiction is unfortunate.

He asked me to review “Prelude,” (Public Interest Communications, 2010), and I suggested he let me out of the review, since I had few good things to say. Being a gentleman, he urged me on saying “write what you want!” I wondered why his novel had such high praises, and I had to ask: Do people love Kurt’s novel, or do they just love Kurt Cobb?

First, the good news: This novel is so bad, it’s much like the mischievous play put on in the film “The Producers:” It was so bad, it was campy and funny to read aloud in spots.

Prelude is a Peak Oil novel and its main character, Cassie, is a striving oil analyst in a prominent Washington, DC energy consulting firm. Her jet-setter lifestyle leaves her very little time for her love life with Paul, a handsome pharmaceutical rep. Cassie is a shallow character, a self-absorbed vamp who, when she’s talked into helping Paul out by attending a concert with his boss, she snubs the boss’s wife to corner one of the musicians. It being a Peak Oil novel, it is no surprise that the musician turns out to be a wealthy Russian trader who made his money in oil stocks and now is “prepping” for peak oil with a few tomato plants and vague relocation plans.

The novel is painfully politically correct by design. In the acknowledgment, Cobb thanks Beth Johnson for offering “validation that the story would appeal to women readers.”

‘Scuse me? I’m sure Ms. Johnson is a fine person, with great female instincts, but does she have some special talent that enables her to give any novel a female “good housekeeping seal of approval?” Is this how far we’ve sunk in the Peak Oil movement, that male fiction writers need an okay from the gals to be sure they aren’t offending our sensibilities? Do we ladies need gentle handling whenever the male novelist attacks the keyboard? Is this acknowledgment to appease the “Mean Girls” who took James Howard Kunstler on for his portrayal of women? (My review of JHK’s latest book “Witches of Hebron” is in an previous post.)

Whatever the motives, “P.C. Cassie” is exquisitely sensitive to her role as a woman in a “man’s world.” The poor “thoroughly Americanized” Indian IT guy needs a helping hand when she asks him for a favor and he tells her: “Sure. Anything for you, beautiful.” She warns him that he could get into a “lot of trouble” talking to women in the office this way. “Big-Hearted Cassie” tells the reader she “could have made a stink” but she “didn’t take offense because it had now become more like an inside joke.” Oh, thank heavens. “Pragmatic Cassie” also realizes that she can’t be an Uber-Feminist because there are “practical considerations such as surviving in a mostly male organization and having a good relationship with the person who runs all the computers.” Was this a form of marginal sexual banter, this “Watch yourself, Big Boy” sort of thing, that drives Subcontinentals mad with desire?

Truth be told, Cassie tip-toes through gender politics even with the older generation. Her father’s friend, (who got her the job) is a protective influence in the mean world of men. Smarter than the young IT guy, he calls Cassie “Love” but is way too savvy to be hit with a Title VII law suit. He confines these terms of endearment to Cassie alone (or so she believes), and was “careful not to use it with any other women in the office lest they take offense.”  “Special-Case Cassie.”

“Career Cassie,” we’re told, would replace her man with a less career-driven fellow if the relationship doesn’t work out, because he’s just too busy at work to cater to her scheduling needs. Apparently, however, her urge to “climb the greasy pole” only lasted up until she learns about Peak Oil, and is compelled for no obvious reason, to break into her bosses’ computer encrypted files with the help of a Russian National she barely knows. “Fickle Cassie,” only a few days earlier, thought Peak Oil was a “crackpot idea.” This was before meeting Mysterious Russian and going to a Peak Oil (ASPO?) conference. Ah, what the right man and a brief lecture on world oil reserves can do!

It’s a fanciful “Geo-Romance Cassie” who has play-time with the Russian as they stroll through a mineral exhibit at a museum. Let’s join the inventive couple for a taste of Cobb’s prose (read aloud for full impact):

“This piece looked like a slice of chocolate cake with pistachio and raspberry filling. She mentioned the resemblance to Victor and he concurred. After that, their eyes scanned for mineral samples that looked like food. A mineral called scheelite, transparent and pinkish-brown, looked like a piece of crystallized ginger to Victor. The calcite, they agreed, seemed to be made of marzipan. Something called elbaite gave the appearance of great sticks of hard candy, both lime and raspberry. Lots of raspberry, Cassie noticed. The gypsum looked like flakes of milk chocolate, Victor suggested. It was as if the flakes had been piled up on a plate in random positions and then been melted slightly and resolidified. Cassie said she wanted to take a piece of fluorite home since it looked like raspberry cake with raspberry frosting…”

This description goes on, but I won’t.

Character development never happens. Who is this woman? We know more about the color of her shoulder bag (“burgundy”) than her true motivations. She takes on life-changing direction like she’s trying on clothes.  She, at first, is true-blue to her company, even snubbing a lucrative job offer by an oil sheik (of course), but her change of heart is sudden, and hapless. Are we to believe that she’s engaged in company espionage to satisfy her curiosity?

The characters, themselves, are mindless props designed to enact a confused story. I have nothing against badly written “how to” novels, like Rawle’s “Patriots.” I read that one with a highlighter (!), and circulated it around to my friends, but despite the handy glossary in the back, explaining oil industry terms, this novel just isn’t the kind of book to give a Peak Oil novice. At least not one you like.

When “Almost-Dead Cassie” was nearly killed by an assassin, I couldn’t care less (unless it promised to end the novel sooner). I came to recognize Cassie for what she was: a soulless Peak Oil Barbie Doll who ends up with her soulless Russian Ken Doll (to be read aloud, again, for full effect…):

“That night, she made love to Victor. It was stimulating, yes. But there was something more, something she didn’t experience with Paul. She realized that sex with Paul was more like a game, a fun game to be sure. But the object of it seemed to be nothing more than to enhance each other’s pleasure. There was nothing wrong with that. Still, sex with Victor was about something larger, a joining together of souls as well as bodies. Cassie had thought that’s what she had with Paul. But now she could feel that it wasn’t. Not even close. Victor had come into her life by chance, a chance meeting at a concert. Now he had changed her life irrevocably.”

In the end, Cassie runs off to Vancouver with Victor, to grow more tomato plants and “other things.” Perhaps wee little Peak Oilers?

Ladies, feeling validated yet?

The book becomes less painful to read after the first fifty pages, but not by much.

I wish I found something to recommend it, but other than the unintended humor, I call ‘em as I see ‘em:

two thumbs down.

Sorry Kurt.

Review: “The Witch of Hebron” by James Howard Kunstler

A good novel is one that conjures images that linger. It creates characters that you feel a variety of emotions toward. The person stands in front of you and you can imagine interacting with them. You know whether you’d invite them to dinner or bar the door when they come knocking. A good novel does more than have a plot, an adventure, a tale. It brings you into the lives and times of the characters and gives you a chance to feel what they must feel, share their wishes and dreams, and hope along with them for the best (or the worst) as you move through the story. You sympathize, feel anger toward, want to comfort or hold your breath saying to yourself “No, don’t do that!” knowing quite well that the character will in fact do that very thing.

And you understand why.

For me then, as a clinical psychologist, a good novel is all about character development, even more so than it is about the demographics, diversity, or employment opportunities of those characters. Like a good meal, it leaves you satisfied after you finish it and haunts your thoughts. It may also bring lively debate.

It is with this in mind, that I review two very different books, one the latest by James Howard Kunstler, The Witch of Hebron (WoH) and in Part II, the first novel by ASPO co-founder Kurt Cobb, Prelude. Each novel takes place in a very different point in time. Kunstler’s WoH, is a post-apocalyptic novel, while Cobb’s Prelude takes place only a few years ago. Let me take each novel separately.

The Witch of Hebron

Let me state for the record that I love the last two novels by James
Howard Kunstler, and I’ll read every upcoming one eagerly. The characters have stayed with me, like friends I know, and I care about. I find no misstep in Kunstler’s novel for his lack of full-blown, in-depth female characters. Okay, so Jim’s women are courtesans, mystics/magicians, or wives, but I look at it this way: If you want vivid female characters, write your own novel. Or wait for his next installment. I don’t slam people for what they don’t write, I prefer to look at the stories they do tell, and this is a great continuing tale. Both books are a very entertaining and captivating story and this last one centers on the adventures of a young boy, Jasper, the town’s physician’s son, and yes, it is a decidedly male perspective. That’s not a problem for me, because the writer satisfies my sensibilities.

Jim Kunstler writes novels you can read aloud. They leave vivid impressions. They make me feel things; sometimes painful, sometimes deadening, but never simple emotions. Take Billy Bones, a highway bandit and a violent, murderous kid that Jasper takes up with. I know kids like Billy. Our ghettos are full of “Billy Bones.” They haven’t known kindness or fair treatment and are desperate for the kind of self-esteem that comes from an I-phone or a fast car, (while Billy has to settle for a self-composed ballad about his life and his escapades). And like Billy, they are very, very dangerous because they foresee no future.

But even in this barren world, foster parents and decency exists. Kunstler describes a level of cooperation between Jane Ann and her minister husband Loren that would be common in any middle-class home today, as they take in and cared for several kidnapped children.

Yes, we can be drawn into the mysterious world of sex-magic weaved by herbalist and witch Barbara Maglie. But the true porn Kunstler weaves is “food porn” as in the following beautiful description:

“Lying on the fir-scented bed, reflecting on the end of his days, Perry Talisker’s hunger pulled his train of memories past all the wonderful meals he had enjoyed across a life-time, many of them dishes he had not tasted for years, and never would again. He could imagine, in all his senses, the gigantic batter-dipped, deep-fried sweet onion he used to order on week-end nights in the old times when he and his wife, Trish, splurged at the Outback Restaurant at Aviation Mall outside Glens Falls. What a marvel that thing was! A gigantic, sweet Vidalia split open by a cleverly designed patent device so that the onion layers formed petals like a great flower allowing an eggy batter to penetrate every crack and fissure and then puff up magnificently when it met the hot fat in the Fryolator. The sublime crunch of the batter contrasted with the yielding sweetness of the onion and the smoky piquant dipping sauce that was several notches better than plain ketchup. He could never finish a whole one, but he’s still follow it with a rack of baby pork ribs, slow-cooked until they were nearly falling off the bone and then finished on the grill offset with a dish of creamy cole slaw, which he regarded as a vegetable, something good for you.”

This passage brings the reader into a “Nostalgia for the Present.” We are with that hungry man, remembering back to those “everyday luxuries” that are no closer to him than walking on the moon is to us now.

Sex

And what is sex to a culture that has been stripped clean of anything resembling normalcy? In this world, sex is both stolen and violent, or the balm that is shared between willing partners. When it is purchased, Kunstler describes Madam Amber’s Fancy House, a whorehouse that caters to a part of the male soul we might have trouble relating to here in the First World. Walking into a “proper” house of prostitution in this novel, a man does not simply receive sex. He also gets a hot meal, a warm bath, a comfortable bed and a luxurious environment for an evening, for those desperate to re-live their former world. It stands in sharp contrast to an otherwise dreary existence for the man without a home.

Kunstler captures something so scrapped clean, so raw, when he explores the night Jasper stays in Madam Amber’s Fancy House with Robin, a thirteen-year-old ‘all house maid’ who is sent to wash the boy and put him into bed. Today I work with children living in an environment where sex is what they can offer adults who are both unpredictable and often violent. Few of us who have not known starvation, bare mattresses and violence can appreciate the pleasure of a bath, fluffy towels, clean clothes, a freshly laundered bed, and a person who invites you to: “Be still. Just for a little while. I won’t hurt you….You’re safe with me.” Jasper’s awkwardness and “surprise” in the scene feels genuine to me, and the sexual skill of a young adolescent, painfully real, even if her orgasms were not.

The “good” women of Union Grove offer something ‘ole timey’ to men and children: a belief that basic needs for affection, wholesome food, an organized house, and safety can still be achieved in a world that offers no stability. Okay, so I don’t know that much about the minister’s wife, Jane Ann, in either novel, but I do know the great love Loren has for her, that allowed him to withstand her sexual relationship with his best friend, or brings him onto dangerous roads in search of sex magic to make love to her once again.

What can tap into the flame of desire, of life, of vigor, for a man, a cleric, robbed of all, including his religious conviction? Nothing short of magic. Loren, once “cured” of his lack of sexual desire, interacts with his wife Jane Ann with a:

“…physical presence in a way that he had not for years, and she sensed his feeling her and each perceived the other in the fullness of the moment, and then a wondrous thing occurred…

“What’s happened to you?” she asked.
“I’ve changed.”
“But how?”

He hesitated. “I found a witch,” he said. “And she put a spell on me.”

Something in his voice convinced her that it was not necessary to ask if he was kidding. Instead, she asked, “Have you changed? Or is the whole world changing around us?”
“Both I think.”

The adolescent among us can read ‘physical presence’ as simply Loren’s erection, but I think it refers to the capacity, long dead in the deeply depressed person, to come alive again, to have the capacity to relate with full attention to another person. Moments become full when each partner is engaged and connected emotionally. The wondrous thing is not simply the act of intercourse, but the life, the full engagement that has returned after being missing for so long.

And they are correct, their world is, indeed, changing in their small town.

Community

In the earlier novel, World Made By Hand, a band of religious folks, the New Faith Brotherhood, first appeared. In that novel, a murder has been committed, and it is clear that the town is unable to muster the energy to do anything about it. We can feel the inertia, the lethargy that chronic, unrelenting depression brings to the townspeople of Union Grove. Depressed people view situations as beyond their control, and believe they are helpless to impact events. In contract to the depressive’s inactivity, the New Faith Brotherhood are the “normals” who have an “unrealistic view” of themselves as having the capacity to impact not-likely-to-change events. They wear “rose-colored glasses” and imagine that their own spunk, faith and creativity can overcome even the worst of circumstances. It is paradoxical that while “depressives” often perceive the world more accurately, non-depressed people are aided by their self-deception in some situations to continue on, despite an unlikely favorable outcome.

Brother Jobe and his band unnerve the town with their energy and enthusiasm, but by their sheer number and certainty, something is altered in everyone. By the second novel, WoH, the reader feels the change. Some semblance of life re-appears, just as it had in Loren. What we witness between these two novels is the creation of something larger than “pure self interest.” We experience the power of community “taking itself on,” to form values once again, and lift itself up from despair.

Kunstler offers us a glimpse into three types of communities. The first is run by a wealthy man, Steven Bullock, who cashed in on collapse, by buying up adjacent land, and setting up jobs and a means of production. He has a well-oiled machine of workers who live in his “village” while he lives like a wealthy industrialist. He’s been given the job of keeping order in Union Grove.

The second is a religious community, the New Faith Brotherhood, run by Brother Jobe. Brother Jobe himself is one of the most engaging of Kunstler’s characters. I know a man quite like Brother Jobe, and Kunstler describes him perfectly: part angel, part rascal. Jobe’s Creator makes exceptions, overlooks, and is pretty flexible when need be, but ultimately is most useful as an inspiration to the New Faith Brotherhood community. It is a tricky business to doctor to men’s souls in hard times.

The final community is made up of the townfolk themselves, freed of Bullock’s village, a role that they see as servitude, but having neither a boss to work for, nor a savior to worship.

In the first novel, “World Made By Hand,” Brother Jobe demands from Bullock what seems like an absurd expectation: Justice. A murder has been committed and Jobe demands that an investigation take place. Interestingly, Bullock’s village is unable to exert enough energy to take this task on, preferring instead to allow matters to stay as they are. While the residents are considerably better off than the townspeople, the indentured takes a toll. It’s a “factory town,” and a place where townspeople end up reluctantly and out of desperation. As Bullock tells Brother Jobe, when asked how his workers are fed: “They feed themselves.” In contrast, the New Faith Brotherhood works for themselves and their only boss is the Almighty. They answer to a higher authority. Brother Jobe sees his job as protective, not exploitative.

It’s a widely-held belief that when energy and jobs are plentiful, it is easy for a culture to be progressive and equitable in their distribution of resources. We seek “justice” for wrong-doing. We might define “good times” as the absence of misunderstandings, screw-ups, snafus, conflicts of interest, and unplanned consequences. Excess resources enable us to smooth over both interpersonal misunderstandings and conflicts of interest between people. We make a bigger pie. We also embrace cultural ideals and expectation of ourselves as members of the social system. We “right the wrongs” and “maintain decency.” We try to line up how we conduct ourselves with cultural ideals we embrace, and our actual or intended conduct is in keeping with these ideals. In other words, what we say is what we do.

When culture breaks down, however, this effort to keep in “culture-conduct alignment” also deteriorates, as we see in Union Grove’s townspeople and Bullock’s village in the first novel. Their resources are taxed, as is their patience. Those in positions of power have secured their “piece of the pie,” leaving the crumbs for those with less social power or resources. But it is this very mis-alignment between their internalized cultural values and the currently deteriorated social condition that intensifies the very depression and hopelessness they feel. While the townspeople “know” that justice isn’t being done, the very awareness of this fact intensifies their helplessness and despair. Brother Jobe’s clan are the voices of not only social justice, but also conscience for the people of Union Grove.

My suggestion: Give both World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron as a set for those who like a good yarn, as well as the Doomers in your life who can’t wait any longer for the community copy to reach them. Read it aloud. Or have a get-together and a discussion.

Two thumbs up!

Next Review: Prelude

It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song

Some 50 years ago, a popular folk singing group, The Kingston Trio, had a popular hit called “It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song”.   I wasn’t a great fan of the group, but I have remembered that particular song over the past 5 decades.   When I first learned of peak oil, there was literally just a handful, a few more than a trio, who were singing a worried song about the end of the oil age.  I didn’t like the song they were singing either.  But it is like the days of the old “Top 40” stations, you hear the song over and over, and even if you don’t care for the song, if you hear it enough times, you find yourselves humming the tune at odd times.  Then one day you find you are singing along with it when you hear it on the radio.  Peak oil discovery was like that for me.  I’m not singing the worried song because I’ve been brainwashed by others through repetitive exposure, but because I researched the subject, and over time, wrote my own lyrics, but the tune is the same for all of us.

At first, there were only a few who were not shy about singing the worried song, Kathy a.k.a. Peak Shrink, Matt Simmons, Matt Savinar, Colin Campbell, Richard Heinberg, Tom Whipple, and James Kunstler to name a few.  Initially it was easy to pick out the individual “voices” singing the worried song.  Now instead of a trio, or quartet singing the worried song, it seems like a thousand voice choir singing the worried song.  It is becoming harder to pick out the individual voices and the contribution they are making.  But the message is loud and clear, we had better be gearing down for a radical lifestyle change.  Thank you, all you early “worried song singers”, you have given us the most precious gift we can get, time.  Time to think, time to adjust, time to prepare, time to learn, time to practice.

What is happening though is the choir singing the worried song is getting louder, and harder to escape.  Sort of like the incessant Christmas carols one hears at this time coming from every direction in every conceivable location.  It would be pretty hard to miss that Christmas is almost here.  I am beginning to get the time is running out jitters, like when I have 16 shopping days to Christmas, and I haven’t got all the gifts yet, much less wrapped.  But how many preparation days do we have left, before the oil decline tsunami hits us up aside the head?  How long will it be before the MSM starts humming the worried song, and the general population starts noticing the tune? I have to start guarding my thought processes now, before the general population starts the peak oil preparation frenzy, and I get drawn into the crowd mentality and waste a lot of time, effort, and money on “stuff”. 

Granted, there will be a need for some “stuff”, but like any prudent Christmas shopper, we need to make a list for lifestyle change.  At the top of the list is ME.  Some of the items under ME aren’t available on the aisles of Wal Mart.  They include getting in better shape.  What will be valuable is can you ride a bicycle out 5 miles from your front door and back without needing EMS and a tank of oxygen when you return?  Can you build a fire without matches or a butane lighter?  How?  Are you eating a healthy diet?  That doesn’t mean an extra helping of lettuce on your hamburger.  Are you taking care of your body by regular daily exercise?  Thirty minutes a day may make the difference as to whether you are a help or a burden to those around you.  When was the last time you went to the Dr.?  Dentist?  Are your shots up to date?  It will be hard enough to cope with what is coming, if we have a disease or toothache that could have been prevented today instead of suffering through in the future.  Also under the ME category on your list is getting your mind in better shape.  I need to develop an understanding of what could happen to me and my family so that I can ask the questions now, and formulate my responses as best I can while not under duress.  Reading all the web sites one can find everything from Mad Maxx scenarios to big happy communes singing around the campfire.  The optimist in me wants to believe in a slow gradual transition into a simpler life style, but it may be more like 1973, when you get up one morning and your world has changed.

The next item on your list should be OTHERS.  That is your spouse or significant other, your family, your friends, and your neighbors.  What skills and talents will you bring to them?  What skills or talents might they have that will be important to you?  We are about to close out 2010 this month.  What new skill or talent did you learn or enhance this past 12 months that will be helpful to others in a decreased fossil fuel lifestyle?  Nothing? Why?   That is why I find the Peak Oil Blues site so informative.  It helps to have others that you can learn from and share your mental and physical preparations and responses with.  It is easy when we are in this preparation stage singing the “worried song” to be so focused on tomorrow, that we ignore today.  That will be disastrous.  The farmer who is so focused on where he will store the future harvest, and neglects the weeds that start growing today, will have nothing to sustain themselves in the long winter.   Who can you develop partnerships with so that you may mutually assist each other on a daily basis?  Developing those partnerships begins today, not when you have the need in the future.

What I find distressing to me today, is that I am not hearing the choir singing one “worried song”, but I am hearing another choir singing a different “worried song” that is intertwined with the first.  It is the “worried song” of economic collapse.  My mind could just about handle the peak oil “worried song”, but it is really straining to fathom economic collapse’s impact on my life and those around me.  Peak oil deals with production of mostly physical things, gasoline, oil, fertilizers, plastics, food production, medicines, clothes, shoes, etc.  Peak oil will have a somewhat predictable decline cause and effect relationship, i.e. at a certain level of availability, you will probably have this, but not that.  Economic collapse, on the other hand, is very unpredictable.  It also affects physical production of things.  Its effects on future oil production can only be guessed.  So its effects on me and my family will be hard to fathom in advance.  This gives me more anxiety than the energy crises.  There can be alternatives to no heat or supermarkets, but what is the alternative for paying your property tax, even if you own your home outright? 

For a while, energy and economics were in a close race as to which would affect us sooner.  Now it appears economics is hitting us hard, and we are only in the first round.  So where do I find myself as I look to the end of 2010?  A worried man, singing two worried songs, and trying to understand what the words all mean.  

Chuck

Who Were You?

A year or so ago, I read a book about the collapse of civilizations, and how some just vanished without a trace.  It puzzled me how that could happen among civilizations that were very advanced for their time.  As the peak oil discourse became more widespread, I began to see how that could happen even to us as a society today.  Then I realized it is happening to us individually even today, and we aren’t even aware of it.  

I have in one closet or other old photo albums of my grandparents, parents or our own, some with pictures dating back to the late 1800s, of various relatives that have long since departed this life, as well as pictures of my youth and my wife, son, and grandchildren.  Then 10 years ago, technology started changing the way we captured and stored these photos, not as images on paper in albums, but as digital images on hard drives or cds.

One of the aspects of the decline of the oil age that I have not seen addressed is that over the last 5 years or so, we have seen a great move away from hard copy anything; pictures, books, magazines, and even newspapers.  As the decline begins to happen, we will see a sharp decline in imports of non-essential goods, including PCs, IPads, e-readers, and other useful devices.  Even if such a decline wasn’t in the cards, the changing technology may render any stored information about us useless.  What if all your family photos were on 5 ¼ floppy disks right now?  For all practical purposes they would be lost.  Yet 15 years ago, that was a stable and common medium for data storage.  If we begin to see a decrease in availability of equipment to read and display our stored data, it will be like we are slowly vanishing. 

We have taken for granted that the information age will survive long into the decline of the oil age.  I don’t think that will be the case.  The economy will decline with the energy shrinkage.  The internet doesn’t just exist because it is useful, it exists because it makes money,….. lots of it.  As the economies around the world shrink, there will be less and less discretionary funds to pay for internet access, less subscribers means less revenue for companies and service providers.  Coupled with the fact that most of our information access devices come from the other side of the world, their cost could soar as the energy to get them to our shores rises and becomes less available.  We have no assurance that 15 years from now access to electronic stored information will be available to any of us.

Are you catching my drift?  If all of the personal information about us becomes mostly electronic, then it is subject to being inaccessible if the power is out, if the PCs aren’t available, if the technology has had to change drastically because of declining energy inputs to develop and build it.  So what will your grandchildren or their children remember about you 20 years from now? ? ?  If you are still living, then you can pass along some of what you know and have experienced.  If not, then they will have no idea of their heritage, of history before them, or even life as we live it today.

A question that nearly everyone asks at some point in time is “Who am I?”   Most of the time, the answer is tied with someone who existed before they were born.  If all our personal background and information becomes mostly electronic and it is unavailable, all they have left is information from those still living who knew us.  Eventually the ravages of time or death remove even that.  So the question becomes “Who were you?”  Even 300 years ago, one could find letters written between individuals to glean some idea of what the people were like.  When was the last time you wrote a letter to someone?

Is it important for you to leave something of yourself to your children’s children?  Only you can answer that.  Our heirs will experience a world so vastly different from ours, would it be helpful for them to understand how you felt about the changes ahead?  Would it be helpful for them to understand the problems and hardships you have faced and conquered in your life, so as to encourage them in theirs?  If you are leaving them Cds or DVDs of photos, video, writings, or other information, it might be useless just 20 years from now.  I think it is important for everyone to leave some written historical record of themselves on hardcopy, with photos, for future generations to read.  In the Bible we find many references to the genealogy of one individual or another.  I believe that is because they realized many millennia ago that the question of “Who am I?” is deeply rooted in the question of “Who were you?”  How will you leave your response?

Chuck