Peak oil spells the end of civilization. Runaway greenhouse spells the end of humanity. This is my latest attempt at standup tragedy.
This is the transcript of a talk I delivered 17 August 2007. It was the keynote address for a conference organized by, and for, students in the University of Arizona’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program. I sent the transcript to a few people, upon request, after I gave the talk. It’s been making its way through cyberspace and judging from the many unsolicited email messages I have received from people I don’t know, it’s been provoking some thought and perhaps even some action. My ego is going to miss the Internet.
This talk started as a 20-minute set of after-dinner comments at a conference on assigning economic value to ecosystem services (the conference was organized by The Research Ranch Foundation). It grew into this hour-long polemic after a few iterations and much commentary. (Thanks to the following for the commentary: Sheila Merrigan, Peter Russell, Court Merrigan, James B. McPherson, Carol Wallace, and Matt Skroch. Thanks to the following for inspiration from their own writings: James Howard Kunstler, Matt Savinar, and Sharman Apt Russell). Due to time constraints, I cut about a quarter of it before I delivered it to the MPH crowd. You’re getting the unconstrained version here, which serves as a long-winded response to Robert W’s comment on my first blog entry: I welcome comments even from irrational people (many would argue I am one), and you’re right about them (me?) as a source of answers. When the inmates are running the asylum — and they seem to be, at least in this country — it doesn’t pay to scream, “You’re all crazy” at them.
As always, comments are welcome. Energy Bulletin has a link to this post.
The invitation to speak today is quite an honor, and I appreciate the opportunity. It’s also quite a challenge, because I know so little about what you do. As I understand personal health, from my medical doctor, I should eat less and exercise more. I assume public health means everybody should eat less and exercise more. That’s about all I know about public health, and I assume it’s not quite the whole story.
The standard approach at commencement ceremonies, graduation events, and other such celebrations is to tell young people they are this country’s most precious resource. Frankly, I think that should scare the hell out of you. Have you seen what we do to precious resources in this country?
Since my knowledge of public health is, shall we say, incomplete, I can make few promises about content and none about quality. That said, I must warn you: I’m an equal-opportunity offender with a passion for stirring the societal stew. Edward Abbey, the iconoclastic author from Tucson, was fond of saying society is like a stew: if you don’t stir it up every now and then, the scum rises to the top. Clearly, we’ve needed a lot more stirring since we lost Cactus Ed’s voice in 1989.
Speaking of scum rising to the top, my dean keeps asking me to quit stirring the pot. Apparently by pointing out the absurdities of Americans and their self-indulgent lifestyles, university professors threaten to interrupt the money being siphoned away from big-business donors and toward our football team. So I keep reminding my dean, and anybody else who’ll listen, that one of my favorite quotes comes from George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Not surprisingly, my dean doesn’t appreciate Orwell nearly as much as I do. Of course, he doesn’t appreciate me nearly as much as I do, either. Fortunately, if tenure means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. In my case, that means trying to wake people up: specifically, the inordinate number of them who are sleeping on the railroad tracks.
It’s a wonderful afternoon and I love the idea and format of today’s program. I would much rather use this opportunity to discuss our common future with you than deliver a sermon to you. As a result, I tried to prepare these comments in light of three criteria – they should be brief, they should be funny, and they should be brief. Considering my lack of skill as a standup comic, I will focus on the first and third criteria.
My internal clock is set at the standard professorial 50 minutes. So in this case, “brief” means early an hour. I suspect it will not seem brief to you, though: I’ve been told that listening to me is about as much fun as gargling razor blades, so this might seem like a long time. This is my way of admitting I will fail to respect any of the three criteria.
I have been plagued lately with the central question underlying Schopenhauer’s philosophy: How to get through a life not worth living?
Socrates famously concluded that the unexamined is not worth living. I’m surprised it took two millennia for somebody — that somebody being Schopenhauer — to realize that the examined life is far, far worse.
I told you I wasn’t funny.
This is one of the many prices you pay for having a PBS mind in an MTV world: You realize that, although ignorance is bliss, bliss is overrated. Otherwise, we’d all be comfortably stoned, all the time. Especially you, since you have ready access to the appropriate pharmaceuticals. We can talk more about those pharmaceuticals later this afternoon … preferably in private.
So then: How to get through a life not worth living?
Schopenhauer gave the answer to his own question in three words: Will to live.
Schopenhauer’s successor Nietzsche extended this idea with his own three-word answer: Will to power. Nietzsche knew the lust for power often exceeds the will to live.
And shortly before his death in 2003, the great human-rights advocate and intellectual leftist Edward Said addressed the issue: “There is no point to intellectual and political work if one were a pessimist. Intellectual and political work require, nay demand, optimism.”
Said was suggesting that, without optimism, we may as well take the Hemingway out.
They say the truth will set you free. The truth does not set you free, it just pisses you off. At least, that’s my experience.
I admired Said for his courage, and I still admire his contrarian views. And, as a self-proclaimed intellectual who is often accused of inappropriately meddling in political work, I am naturally inclined toward optimism. There’s no reason to stir the pot if you think the human condition is hopeless.
But I suspect Said did not know about Peak Oil or runaway greenhouse. Surely his optimism would have been dampened, had he only known about these two profound consequences of our insatiable desires.
Oil supply — at the level of the field, county, state, country, or world — follows a bell-shaped curve; the top of the curve is called “Peak Oil,” or “Hubbert’s Peak.” We passed Hubbert’s Peak for world oil supply and began easing down the other side about two years ago. We’ll fall off the oil-supply cliff next year. Because this country mainlines cheap oil, it is easy to envision the complete collapse of the U.S. economy within a decade. The Great Depression will seem like the good old days when unemployment approaches 100% and inflation is running at 1000% per year. Obviously, this is a very good thing … for the world’s cultures and species, other than our own. After all, in the name of economic growth we have ripped minerals from the Earth, often bringing down mountains in the process; we have harvested nearly all the old-growth timber on the continent, replacing thousand-year-old giants with neatly ordered plantations of tiny trees; we have hunted species to the point of extinction; we have driven livestock across every almost acre of the continent, baring hillsides and engendering massive erosion; we have plowed large landscapes, transforming fertile soil into sterile, lifeless dirt; we have burned ecosystems and, perhaps more importantly, we have extinguished naturally occurring fires; we have spewed pollution and dumped garbage, thereby dirtying our air, fouling our water, and contributing greatly to the warming of the planet; we have paved thousands of acres to facilitate our movement and, in the process, have disrupted the movements of thousands of species. As I wrote in one of my recent books, the problem is not that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions — it’s that the road to Hell is paved. We have, to the maximum possible extent allowed by our intellect and never-ending desire, consumed the planet and therefore traded in tomorrow for today. And we keep making these choices, every day, choosing dams over salmon, oil over whales, cars over polar bears, death over life. And when I say we keep making these choices, I do not mean you and me — we have essentially nothing to do with it — I mean the politicians and CEOs who run this country. They are killing the planet and, when they notice the screams, they turn up the volume on Fox News. Meanwhile, most Americans took the blue pill without really thinking about the consequences. In the wake of these endless insults to our only home, perhaps the biggest surprise is that so many native species have persisted, thus allowing for our continued use and enjoyment.
When I tell people about Peak Oil, the immediate response is something like, “C’mon, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is setting records; the economy looks great.”
Uh-huh. Never mind the asset bubble built by shaky investments. Never mind the manipulation of the money supply by the Federal Reserve Bank since the Fed’s monetary policy was removed from public view by Ben Bernanke. Never mind that the Dow, which is based on a whopping 30 companies, is in free-fall when measured against any metric except the U.S. dollar, which is falling even faster. Never mind that serious stock-market investors represent a slim minority of the world’s populace.
Ignore all that, and think about this: When you jump off a 100-story building, everything seems fine for a while. In fact, the view just keeps getting more clear as you get closer to the ground. What could possibly go wrong? Well, maybe one thing. It’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the sudden stop at the bottom.
The American pragmatist philosopher and pacifist William James struggled with the same question every single morning: Shall I get out of bed? I really don’t know how he did it … physically, that is: Personally, I’m emptying my bladder before I’m fully awake in the morning. So I struggle with the follow-up question: Shall I spend the day teaching and writing, or shall I do something useful? Shall I blow up a freeway, a building, a dam, or some other sign of destruction disguised as progress? So far, I’ve opted for the “civilized” option, the one that results in more people consuming more stuff and hurtling us ever closer to the sudden stop at the bottom of the fall. But tomorrow’s a new day; there’s hope for me yet. ‘Course, a career in academia has me ill-prepared for useful work, so I’ll have to learn a lot before I can take meaningful action against the machine of death known as “civilization.”
Passing Hubbert’s Peak may be good news for species and cultures, other than our own, but it obviates technological solutions to many of our most pressing problems, including runaway greenhouse. You could argue that technology has never solved a social problem, but only made them worse, so this point may be irrelevant. If you’re a fan of technology, you might conclude that burning the planetary endowment of oil precludes development of a sustainable civilization on this planet. Any intelligent species that evolves in the wake of our demise — our planetary successors — will lack the supply of inexpensive energy necessary to create a sustainable civilization. Following this line of thought, each planet gets a single shot at sustainability, and we blew ours when we let the neo-conservatives rip the solar panels off the White House and pursue economic growth as our only god. Again, you could argue — and I would agree — that civilization is inherently unsustainable, and that we can approach sustainability only by accelerating civilization’s ultimate collapse and forcing us back into the sustainable societies of the Stone Age.
As the Buddha said, “there is no torrent like greed.” Or, as Al Gore said in a recent speech about our national energy policy, this country needs a new dipstick. I did not get the impression he was volunteering. And that’s okay with me. I mean, here’s a guy who thinks the climate crisis can be solved by a bunch of professional narcissists strutting across the world’s stages stroking their Stratocasters. Sorry, folks, but even the world’s greatest consumers can’t spend our way out of this one.
Speaking of the climate crisis, what about runaway greenhouse? Runaway greenhouse simply means that positive feedbacks are overwhelming Earth’s climate system and we cannot stop the warming of planet Earth. Had we passed the oil peak a decade earlier, we would have been forced to reduce CO2 emissions and therefore prevent the frying of the planet.
But Peak Oil came too late to save us. It appears humanity will be restricted to a few thousand hardy scavengers living near the poles within a century or two. Shortly thereafter, Homo sapiens will join, in extinction, every other species to occupy the planet. Recent projections indicate that, by century’s end, there will be no planetary ice. That’s dinosaur days, and the end of the human experience. It’s very small consolation to me that, as the home team, Nature bats last.
We will persist about 10% as long as the typical species of mammal, giving credence to Schopenhauer’s view that the human experience is a mere blink of an eye bounded on either side by infinities of time. Despite our apparently brief stay on this most wondrous of planets, it has become clear we will take a large percentage of the planet’s biological diversity along with us into the abyss.
Alas, “there is no torrent like greed.”
Knowledge of Peak Oil and runaway greenhouse leads me, again, to the question of Schopenhauer: How to get through a life not worth living? I have struggled mightily with this question – much to the chagrin of my wife, I can assure you – and have turned to my intellectual predecessors and heroes for answers.
I start, as I often do, with Socrates. Socrates pursued a life of excellence by questioning those who would tolerate him and his many inquiries. He knew we were beings singularly tuned to quality. Within the next few minutes, I will mention each of the six primary questions of Socrates, the questions that represent the qualities he found so important to the human condition: What is good? What is piety? What is virtue? What is courage? What is justice? What is moderation? These questions are as vibrant and relevant today as they were more than two millennia ago. I encourage you to consider the questions of Socrates as you attempt to live a life of excellence, and as you move forward in your promising careers. I suspect many of you are thinking: “My career seemed promising … until he showed up.”
At about the same time Socrates was getting himself killed for asking too many questions, the son of a wealthy king on the other side of the planet was forsaking the family fortune and asking questions of his own. Unlike Socrates, the Buddha was willing to hazard a few answers, which have come to be known as his four noble truths. The first of those truths: “Life is suffering.”
It’s hard to believe Schopenhauer wasn’t a Buddhist, given the primary question underlying his philosophy.
Never mind runaway greenhouse: The Buddha didn’t even know about oil, much less Peak Oil. In the absence of such knowledge the Buddha, like Socrates, concluded that a life of moderation contributes to a life of excellence. I think it’s pretty impressive that Socrates and the Buddha reached the very same conclusion even without using the Internet to assist their obvious plagiarism. In the spirit of Socrates and the Buddha, we may want to consider some moderation ourselves, although it’s likely too late for moderation to solve the pressing problems associated with Peak Oil and runaway greenhouse.
So then, back to the question: How to get through a life not worth living? Schopenhauer was a very smart guy, but his response to his own question is wholly insufficient: Will to live is inadequate for most philosophers, as it is for me.
Nietzsche was perhaps the most brilliant person to occupy the planet so far, but his response similarly leaves me wanting: Will to power is meaningless if we abuse the power … and it seems that abuse of power is what the hairless monkey does best. Small wonder Nietzsche was impressed with Buddhism and the Buddha’s second noble truth: “Desire is the source of suffering.” As Americans, we expect our every desire to be fulfilled, planet Earth be damned. If our desires include Hummers and hang-gliders, Thai take-out and plasma-screen TVs, well, those are among the many rewards of Empire. As long as the costs of Empire remain obscured from view, we’re as happy as pigs in … well, you know.
So much for these two famous 19th-century German philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. But even Said’s unremitting optimism may seem unwarranted in light of knowledge that has emerged since his death.
But wait. I’m not ready to dismiss Said just yet. My response to the question of Schopenhauer is rooted in Said-style optimism that is perhaps unwarranted but nonetheless undeniable.
You’ve likely heard the old expression: An optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist fears this is true.
My optimistic response to the question of Schopenhauer has two primary components: friendship and hope.
I’ll talk a little more about hope shortly. But I’ll start with friendship.
I turn to Aristotle for my favorite definition of friendship: a relationship between people working together on a project for the common good. Without the common good, we might as well restrict friendship to drinking buddies. The distinction is as clear as that between being a citizen and being a consumer. Sadly, I suspect most Americans don’t know the difference. Public health is a paradigmatic example of the common good, making us friends in the Aristotelian sense.
In Aristotle’s definition of friendship we find traces of his teacher’s teacher, Socrates. After all, one of the six primary questions of Socrates was, “What is good?” For focusing on the common good, I suspect Socrates would have been pleased with Aristotle – and perhaps even with those of us in this room, although I will admit it may be asking too much to expect the blessing of a long-dead Greek Cynic.
And speaking of Greek Cynics, it’s pretty clear the prophet of America’s dominant religion was heavily influenced by Greeks and especially the Cynics. Yet a Time magazine poll conducted late last year found that 61% of Christians in this country believe God wants them to be financially prosperous. Never mind the biblical root of all evil. Never mind the gospels, especially the gospel of Mark. When three out of five self-proclaimed followers of a poor, homeless prophet who dedicated his life to working with the poor believe they are entitled to wealth, it’s no wonder you don’t hear much about the common good these days. This stunning statistic brings to mind another of Socrates’ questions: “What is piety?”
The Greatest Generation of Tom Brokaw, the generation that saved the world from fascism during World War II — or so the story goes — that’s the generation that begat the greatest generation of consumers in world history. It’s been a wild ride, but it’s time to turn out the lights: The party’s just about over. The baby-boom generation’s legacy, their “gift” to you, is a world depleted of resources, ruined by Empire, and ruled by fascism masquerading as Republic.
In One with Nineveh, the ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich describe the American social system as, “capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich.” Our socioeconomic system is designed to subsidize the wealthy and pulverize the downtrodden. And, of course, to pulverize our precious resources.
Contrary to society’s general disregard for the common good, I have to believe that the greatest measure of our humanity is found in what we do for those who cannot take care of themselves: the myriad species, cultures, and yes, even impoverished individuals in our own country, who never stood a chance in the face of American-style capitalism.
I have to believe, in other words, that our humanity is measured in our willingness to protect the common good. And, by pursuing and protecting the common good, we become friends in the Aristotelian sense.
I’m willing to call the pursuit of the common good an exercise in virtue, bringing to mind another Socratic question: “What is virtue?”
With today’s focus on public health, we are pursuing the common good. But I will be the first to admit that we have our differences. Indeed, the wonder of DNA ensures our uniqueness. The odds against any one of us being here are greater than the odds against being a particular grain of sand on all the world’s beaches — no, the odds are much greater than that: they exceed the odds of being a single atom plucked from the entire universe. To quote the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, “In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I that are privileged to be here, privileged with eyes to see where we are and brains to wonder why.” If a student in one of my classes wrote like that, I would reward the sentiment … but I would correct the grammar.
Enough about friendship for now. What about hope, the second component of my optimistic response to Schopenhauer’s question?
I view hope as the left-brain product of love, analogous to democracy as the product of freedom, or liberty. Notably, Patrick Henry did not say, “Give me democracy or give me death.” Like the rest of the founding fathers, Henry knew that freedom was primary to democracy; without the guiding light of freedom, or liberty, democracy breaks up on the shoals. Love keeps our left brain in check — that’s the message of the world’s religions. But our right-brain love creates the foundation for hope: love for nature, love for our children and grandchildren, love for each other. Without love to light the way, hope breaks up on the shoals.
Mind you, hope is not simply wishful thinking. And that’s a problem, considering we’re immersed in the ultimate “wishful thinking, something-for-nothing” culture. How else to explain books such as The Secret, which proclaims that happy thoughts will generate happy results, including personal wealth? How else to explain the prevalence of, and widespread acceptance of, casinos? And it’s not just acceptance: it’s adoration, if the boob tube and the local movie theater are to be believed. Not so long ago, gambling was frowned upon because, instead of adhering to a culture of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, it reflects the expectation that a person can get something for nothing. No, hope is not wishful thinking.
And another thing: hope is not a consumer product. You can’t walk into Wal-Mart and order up a carton of hope. Indeed, given the demise of cheap oil, there’s unlikely to be a Wal-Mart — or any other large institution, for that matter — to walk into at all within a few years. Even if Wal-Mart, the federal government, or the University of Arizona somehow find a way to survive, we’re going to have to generate our own hope, one person at a time. Just as an economic collapse happens one person at a time, so too must hope happen one person at a time.
When I’m not playing social critic, I am a conservation biologist. I admit conservation biology is a value-laden enterprise, hampered by — and perhaps assisted by — bridges between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The greatest value of Earth is, always has been, and always will be, that it exists. Not that it is useful. But that it is. Perhaps that makes me an artist trapped in a scientific pursuit. But, at least for me, it allows hope to emerge from the tonic of wildness, thereby providing context for this most insignificant of lives. It allows hope to flicker. And if there is a flicker of hope, I believe we must treat it like a beacon. Hope, my friends, is everywhere.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” said Emily Dickinson. Her other poems indicate that she was not restricting her thoughts to birds: Dickinson found hope throughout the glory and wonder of nature.
My friend and colleague, the planner Vern Swaback, is fond of saying he finds hope in “a person’s dedicated life.” I cannot improve upon Vern’s comment, but I can offer a few other personal examples.
I find hope in the poems of the teenaged girls at the juvenile detention facility where I help teach stewardship through poetry.
And I see hope flickering every day in the eyes — and therefore in the minds and in the hearts — of the students with whom I am fortunate to work on a daily basis.
Hope is our humility overcoming our hubris in the face of long odds. This will require an enormous amount of courage. We must rise to Nietzschean heights in the style of the Overman.
Hope is self-proclaimed liberals and self-proclaimed conservatives in the same room, discussing our common future.
Hope, then, rooted in friendship, is my response to Schopenhauer. Hope, in other words, rooted in friendship — let’s call it Platonic love — rooted in the right-brained friendship expressed by honoring each other and hugging trees.
Will to live is no solution: It’s a problem, as Schopenhauer himself admitted when he proclaimed, “to desire immortality is to desire the eternal perpetuation of a great mistake.”
Our will to live — rooted in the evolutionary drive to survive — makes us shortsighted and self-motivated (or, in the case of many of us, self-absorbed).
We are inherently incapable of considering, much less empathizing with, our grandchildren’s grandchildren. That’s why we are willing to bake the planet beyond the point of habitability within a very few generations. This brings to mind another question of Socrates: “What is justice?” I do not know what justice is, but I know it is unjust to leave the world worse than we found it.
It seems evolution dealt us a bad hand — it gave us the big brains, but they’re not quite big enough.
Evolution drives us toward “flight or fight” — that is, to survival.
If we survive, evolution drives us to procreate: Nearly 4 billion years of evolution are screaming at us to breed. Evolution has some bad company on this one, in the form of the world’s largest religious group, and the world’s fastest-growing one.
If we clear the first two hurdles, evolution prods us to acquire material possessions.
And these three outcomes of evolution — the drives to live, procreate, and accumulate possessions — are disastrous to the common good.
If Schopenhauer’s “will to live” offers no viable solution, Nietzsche’s “will to power” is even worse, for it reveals our darkest nature. It’s small wonder Nietzsche abandoned the Overman late in his career. Or perhaps the Overman abandoned Nietzsche.
Maybe Said wasn’t so far off the mark:
Said said “optimism” … I say “hope.”
Said said “intellectual and political work” … I say “the common good.”
But we seem not so far apart, Said and I. Just like, on close inspection, those of us in this room: Our intellectual and political work require, nay demand, optimism. For without it, hope is lost for both kinds of humanity:
Without optimism, hope is lost for the individual, personal variety of humanity that is the measure of our character.
And without optimism, hope is lost for our entire species, and many others on this planet. That hope is lost, too, without big doses of courage, justice, moderation, and virtue.
Well, then: How do we get from here to there? How do we, in the words of the anthropologist and poet Loren Eiseley, “seek a minor sun” when faced with our final freezing battle with the void? How do we, as a species, use our hope and our friendship to address the urgent issue of Peak Oil while simultaneously solving the problem of runaway greenhouse? These are the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced. Tackling either of them, without the loss of a huge number of human lives, will require tremendous courage, compassion, and creativity. Many experts who write about simply one of these issues — Peak Oil — predict complete economic collapse within a decade, followed shortly thereafter by utter chaos and the subsequent death of more than 80% of the world’s population. After all, the exponential curve of human population growth matches perfectly the exponential growth of world energy supply, suggesting that the downturn of the energy curve will cause a large-scale die-off of human beings. And if you think chaos can’t overwhelm descend on this country, you weren’t paying attention to New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Horrible as that event was, nearly everybody involved knew it was a temporary inconvenience; I’m concerned how people might act when they recognize Peak Oil as a long emergency. One by one, starting in 2012, the world’s cities will experience permanent blackouts; and once we enter the Dark Age, the Stone Age won’t be too far behind. Bear in mind, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I know the current culture — the culture of make believe, or the culture of death, depending on how deeply you care to think about it — is the worst possible route for most of the planet’s species; as a conservation biologist, I realize the faster and more complete the collapse of Empire, the greater our biological legacy. On the other hand, the paralyzing hand of fear grips me every time I think about Peak Oil; a life in the ivory tower is damned poor preparation for Stone-Age living. Fortunately, I only think about it a few thousand times each day.
Can we get from here to there? We have the best excuse in the world to not act. The momentum of civilization is powerful. Resisting those in power will almost certainly lead to imprisonment, torture, perhaps even death. Those are pretty good excuses to forego action. So the question becomes: “Would you rather have the best excuse in the world, or would you rather have a world?” To tackle Peak Oil and runaway greenhouse at the same time might require larger doses of courage, compassion, and creativity than we can find in ourselves.
But I hope not. And in that hope, we find the agenda ahead, laid out in ten huge steps by James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency. This is a not a 10-step plan in the usual sense; rather, we will have to start all of these steps simultaneously, and now. These steps are ginormous. That’s a new word, as of last month when Webster‘s declared it so. Interestingly, I read about it under a tiny headline. And I was quite disappointed that ginormous was chosen, but gihugic was not. In any event, here are the 10 steps:
Step 1: Expand our horizons beyond the question of how we will run the cars by means other than gasoline. The TechnoMessiah will not save us from ourselves, nor will she magically create a substitute for crude oil. The mainstream media would have you believe ethanol is the savior, when in fact the most likely outcome of the ethanol craze is that we’ll use our gas tanks to burn through the last six inches of topsoil in America’s breadbasket. Biodiesel represents the most viable of the alternative fuels, but it requires a choice: We can use our farmland to grow food, or we can use it to grow fuel for our cars. Given the choice between eating and driving, I suspect many Americans would choose driving. But cognitive dissonance runs so deep, they’ll choose to drive … to Burger King. This obsession with keeping the cars running threatens our lives and our species. Cars are not part of the solution, whether they run on fossil fuels, moonshine, peanut oil, or buffalo chips. Rather, they are very clearly part of the problem, and a large part at that. It’s time to abandon the car, time to make other arrangements for nearly all the common activities of daily life.
Step 2: We must produce food differently. Industrial agriculture is destined for disaster, and will leave in its wake sterile soils and an agricultural model at a grossly inappropriate scale. Within the next decade or so, small-scale farming will return to the center of American life. Think of the Victory Gardens of Oil War II as a small-scale, temporary experiment. Say goodbye to the 3,000-mile Caesar salad to which we’ve become accustomed; say hello to locally grown food, recognizing that you might have to grow your own. In the near term, this situation presents many business and vocational opportunities for creative, hard-working people. First, though, we will have to retrieve considerable knowledge from the dustbin of history. And in arid regions such as Tucson, Arizona, we’ll need to obtain our water differently, too. When oil becomes too expensive or too limited in supply, we won’t be using it to suck water from deep in the ground. In the absence of fossil fuels, the human carrying capacity of the Tucson basin is approximately zero.
Step 3: We must inhabit the terrain differently. The American suburbs and the interstate highway system are designed for a culture that has no future: the misguided car culture. The suburbs in particular represent perhaps the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Our suburbs essentially require us to live far from our places of work and play, and also far from all consumer goods, from food to furniture. We will have to learn to inhabit differently, or not inhabit at all, most areas currently dominated by asphalt, concrete, and tall buildings. These include, for example, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Tucson. Our cities must contract. Our towns must be re-inhabited and the areas around them must be re-structured to accommodate small farms and the manufacture of goods to serve the towns. This entire process will require gihugic demographic shifts and is likely to be turbulent. When the trucks stop bringing food and the water stops flowing through the taps and the diesel-powered trains are no longer bringing coal to the power plant; when all this is happening and the thermometer reads 105 degrees and the calendar says summer’s not here yet; you’d better get along with your neighbors, especially the heavily armed ones who take a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment. If you’re looking for a job in the decades ahead, look no further than the brand-new fields of architecture, planning, and political leadership. The old versions of these enterprises are useless and must be abandoned. Consider our cities, as they currently stand: We have no sense of public space. Any small piece of beauty we might otherwise find between Wal-Mart and Target is obscured by the curvature of the earth. Our strip-malls are so ugly even winos won’t hang out there. There’s not enough Prozac in the world to make them seem nice. Are these places worth caring about? Are they worth defending? I’d guess there are at least 100,000 places not worth caring about in this country, and the number is growing. Actually, there might be 100,000 places not worth caring about in the Phoenix metropolitan area alone. When we have more places not worth caring about than places that are worth caring about, perhaps that day will come that we’ll run out of young people — people your age — willing to spill their blood in the Middle East to defend our hyper-indulgent, non-negotiable way of life. That’ll be a dreadful day for American Empire, but a wonderful day for the rest of the planet.
Step 4: We must move people and things differently. You’ve probably all seen the bumper sticker on about every fourth 18-wheeler on the interstate: “Without trucks, America stops.” That’s about right, at least with respect to economic growth. And the trucks are going to stop within the next half-decade or so. Shortly thereafter, the interstate highway system will simply collapse. Let’s not waste our time trying to prop up our hallucinatory economy with its fatal dependency on cars and trucks. Rather, we could restore public transit. We could start with our railroads –currently, we have a rail system the Bulgarians would be ashamed of — and we could electrify our railways so they can run on renewable energy. Then we could move to the waterways, starting by ripping out the condos and bike paths from the inner-city harbors and then restoring the piers and warehouses (not to mention the sleazy accommodations for sailors). Numerous career opportunities lie ahead for those hardy individuals willing to put away their iPods and Blackberries long enough to chart the course. Whoops, there I go, showing my age again … put away their iPhones, not their Blackberries.
Step 5: We need to transform retail trade. The demise of Wal-Mart is at hand. Personally, I think that’s a nice silver lining, albeit in a large bank of very dark clouds. The national chains have used inexpensive oil as the foundation for predatory economies of size, and therefore as the springboard for killing local economies. Cheap oil is fundamental to the 12,000-mile supply chain underlying the “warehouse on wheels” approach to the just-in-time delivery of cheap plastic crap. Don’t think for a minute that Internet shopping will replace small, locally owned shops in every town: After all, Internet shopping relies on cheap delivery, and delivery will no longer be cheap in the days ahead. In addition, Internet shopping depends on reliable electric-power systems. Electricity is a short-lived luxury because all sources of power are derivatives of oil; for example it takes a lot of oil to rip coal out of the ground, and then a lot more to deliver it to the power plant; it takes a lot of oil to construct a solar panel or a wind turbine, or even to maintain dams used to generate hydroelectric power. Again, there are plenty of career opportunities for energetic individuals interested in small, local businesses. In the locally owned shops of the future, even the much maligned “middle man” will be making a comeback (so, too, will the lesser-known “middle woman”).
Step 6: We have to start making things again. We will have far fewer choices when we go to the store, but we still will need clothes and household goods. We don’t know how we’re going to make things, or even what we’re going to make, in part because we haven’t made much of anything in this country for such a long time. But I’m counting on American ingenuity to light the way. If you’re looking for a job, there’s plenty that needs to be done because there’s plenty that needs to be manufactured.
Step 7: We need artists again. When the power goes out, we won’t get to decide between listening to Britney Spears and watching the latest rendition of American Idol. See, I’m full of good news! We’re going to need playhouses and live performance halls, albeit without high-tech light and sound systems. And we’ll need musicians and actors and playwrights and stagehands and theater managers. We’ll need storytellers, too, to keep history alive when the publishers stop printing books. Again, the Internet is unlikely to save on-demand canned entertainment if the power’s on the fritz. We’ll be able to look back on the Internet as a wonderful piece of technology, if only because it unmistakably disproved the old expression: “A million monkeys at a million typewriters could reproduce Shakespeare.”
Step 8: We must reorganize the educational system. Yellow fleets of school buses are on their way out. We have invested heavily in centralized systems of primary and secondary school — most recently and disastrously in the form of “No Child Left Behind” — and we will undoubtedly continue to invest in that centralization at the expense of true education. Such investment will slow the transition to a reasonable system of education that perhaps will grow, in fits and starts, from the home-schooling movement. More good news: It seems we will not be stuck with a public school system focused on churning out automata to serve industry. The current system was described by Jules Henry in his 1963 classic, Culture Against Man: “School is indeed training for later life not because it teaches the 3 Rs (more or less), but because it instills the essential cultural nightmare fear of failure, envy of success, and absurdity.” Henry’s scathing critique correctly pointed out that public schools eviscerate individuality and creativity, and therefore serve corporate America at the expense of Americans. The demise of corporate America will solve that problem. I suspect higher education is doomed to fail for myriad reasons, including terminal indifference of the academy to societal needs. But if you can write a coherent paragraph and do long division, you can already out-perform most college graduates. If you can teach youngsters to do these things, I suspect you have a bright future as a teacher in a post-carbon world.
Step 9: Our medical system must be completely reorganized, and I’ll expand on this topic shortly. Without power-hungry high-tech tools, we’ll need real doctors again: people who understand how the body actually functions. In the coming barter economy, they’ll likely make house calls to work for a meal or a place to sleep. On the other hand, we’ll all be eating less and exercising more, so my doctor will be happy about that. All in all, there will be less concern about blood pressure, cholesterol, and various pulmonary conditions. And, for people like you, there will be plenty of career opportunities in the near future.
Step 10: Our entire socio-economic and political system will become much more local. Every large system will fail. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to be well fed and even revered in your local community. Local politics will assume increasing importance as first the federal government, then the state government, simply fade from relevance. Neo-conservatism clings tenuously to life but, much to the dismay of Business Party I and Business Party II, will soon be dead. The collapse of American Empire will bring many opportunities for local heroes. I can imagine one possible exception, one large system that may not collapse: the Church. Because religions deal in the transport of ideology, rather than Wheaties and widgets, I fear they might assume the same power they did during the last Dark Age. I fear the rise of the Church not because I am opposed to other peoples’ spirituality, but because I believe the problems we face can be solved only with secular approaches, not with wishful thinking. That said, the worst possible outcome would be a battle to the death in a game of Last Man Standing. Our focus on the common good precludes a mentality of Us vs. Them; with the common good, there is no “Them.”
There you have it: a thumbnail sketch of the agenda. I’m sure I’ve left out many important items, but take heart: any number can play, and there is so much to be done. We’re sleepwalking into the future — headed for a cliff of our own making — and it’s time to wake up.
This, then, is the bottom line: This is not the time for wishful thinking. It’s the time for doing. The way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your butt and demonstrate to yourself, and perhaps to others, that you are a capable, competent individual determinedly able to face new circumstances.
In the arena of public health, that means dealing with the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
During the time of Christ, in the Mediterranean region, the population of humans was viewed through the same lens as other populations. As such, human deaths often occurred in large numbers, as a result of war, conquest, famine, and pestilence – these are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as described in the gospel of John. The Four Horsemen of the New Testament are reminiscent of much of the Old Testament. Among the many exemplary passages in the Old Testament is this one from Deuteronomy: “The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning.”
Yikes. A quick review of the Old Testament suggests the Lord was partial to quite a bit of smiting. Strange and often fatal diseases were attributed to Divine Retribution. They still are, by some people. Not so long ago, President Ronald Reagan declared AIDS to be “God’s revenge” on homosexuals. That was after he ripped the solar panels off the White House, but before he oversaw the military conquest of Grenada, a tiny island-country in the Caribbean most of you haven’t heard of, until now.
Until very recently, large-scale die-offs were viewed as “normal,” in much the same way we view as “normal” our K-12 system of education, or weekly shopping trips to Safeway, or using a cellular telephone. The description and management of human populations back in the days of the Greek Cynics was oriented along population lines, with relatively little societal regard for individuals. Contrast that perspective with our laser-like focus on individuals. Let’s take a quick look at the Four Horsemen, one at a time. Famine’s as good a place to start as any, considering that my limited understanding of public health tends toward eating … or, eating less.
The years ahead will see a dramatic rise in deaths from starvation, as we become unable to transport vegetables from the Central Valley of California to the American Southwest, or any place else in the country. The inability to retrieve high-fructose corn syrup in the form of cheese doodles and soda pop from the vending machine down the hall won’t hurt us a bit, individually or collectively, but it’s symptomatic of far greater problems. At the population level, starvation is called famine. And famine looms large, right here in the richest country in the history of humanity.
We’ll also see pestilence — what we call disease, when it happens one person at a time — making a big comeback. Cheap oil allows us to sanitize our water, lethally cook harmful organisms, sterilize the surfaces on which we prepare and eat food, and manage many potentially catastrophic diseases. Contemporary American healthcare is completely dependent on ready supplies of cheap oil, for grid-based electrical power, backup generators, and thousands of pieces of equipment we all take for granted, from IVs and syringes to disposable gloves and plastic containers for tossing out contaminated needles and other sharp objects. When the trucks stop running, we won’t even be able to deliver antibiotics, unless ginormous numbers of non-apocalyptic horsemen suddenly appear. I hope society will retain some understanding of germ theory, so you are able to live at least half as long as your grandparents.
Famine and pestilence are two of the Four Horsemen; war and conquest are the other two. Already, resource wars have begun, and they are likely to ratchet up in the near future. The so-called bipartisan Iraqi study group concluded that Operation Iraqi Freedom was conducted in pursuit of black gold. In fact, just to make the acronym transparent, the invasion should have been called Operation Iraqi Liberty.
Regardless of the name of the invasion, it truly was “mission accomplished” for George W. Bush: We ensured ourselves a spot at the OPEC table, while also piratizing … er, I guess I’m supposed to call that privatizing … the oil fields of Iraq for American companies. Although the Oilman in the Oval Office correctly pointed out, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, “America is addicted to oil,” his solution is absurd. Rather than stressing conservation, as a conservative might do, his goal is to find more oil by any means necessary. ‘Cause that’s the way to deal with addiction: find more substance for the addict.
I fear Oil War III is just getting started.
And conquest? That’s just another name for war, albeit without a fight from the vanquished. We’ve done that throughout our history, as have many other nations. I’ve no doubt we’ll continue.
The Four Horsemen are lurking in the background, obscured by the never-ending, irrelevant chatter of the corporate media. Here’s my impression of Fox News: blah blah blah Britney Spears blah blah blah Threat Level Orange blah blah blah Paris Hilton blah blah blah … Fox News: the only national news source without a liberal bias. The corporate media’s weapons of mass distraction notwithstanding, soon enough the Four Horsemen will be riding tall enough for everyone to see. Population-scale rules from two millennia ago will re-assert themselves.
Socrates understood the importance of maintaining societal norms in the name of the law, even when justice failed at the level of the individual. And public-health practitioners back in Socrates’ day undoubtedly understood that the good of the one, or of the few, sometimes must be sacrificed for the good of the many. These practitioners understood this fundamental concept even before Mr. Spock pointed it out on the starship Enterprise. (One of the problems I encounter in speaking with people your age is that my cultural references pre-date you by a couple generations; sorry about that.)
A lot has changed in the two thousand years that have transpired since Socrates drank from that fatal cup.
As an aside, I once asked a roomful of students, “What was Socrates’ most famous quote?” I thought someone would answer with the one about the unexamined life being not worth living. Instead, somebody immediately yelled out, “I drank what?”
Many, and perhaps most, of the changes that have transpired during the last two millennia have occurred during the last century. We can trace many of those changes to American exceptionalism and our focus on the individual. In this country, we too infrequently take a population approach to public health. We decree every life worth saving, including the one-pound baby born 12 weeks premature, the 95-year-old with cancer in all the major organs, and everybody between. To a great extent, we have traded in a perspective on the population for an obsession with the individual.
Never mind human dignity. Our doctors are the best. They — meaning we — can save anybody. The costs, which are enormous, have been ignored in the name of vanity. These costs include economic, environmental, political, social … and moral.
Some countries have looked back to move forward. Ireland uses medical generalists in their communities to advance the public health. They preserve the good of the many at the occasional expense of the one, or of the few. Yet babies and old people die at the about the same annual rate in Ireland as in the United States. No, Ireland’s public-health practitioners don’t get to write articles about saving the lives of babies with no statistical chance of living. They don’t get to bask in the reflected glory — or maybe it’s the hubris — of their seven-figure salaries while their peers enviously wonder when they’ll have a chance to break the new record. But perhaps, in focusing on communities and therefore letting go of some individual lives, Ireland has preserved something we’ve lost: something economic, environmental, political, social … or moral.
I’ll finish where I started, which was the common good as the basis for friendship and hope. And, of course, with the ancients.
Without the common good, and the struggle on its behalf, there can be no Aristotelian friendship. There can be no justice. And there can be no virtue.
Therefore, I am forced to conclude that: 5,000 generations into the human experience, with the end of humanity in clear view, our shared goal must be … the common good.
And I further conclude that: As friends, we reveal our differences, we appreciate our differences, and then we set them aside … for the common good.
With hope shining like a beacon, we struggle together … for the common good.
We have in our hands the destiny of our planet, including our own species and so many others. In the end, for finite beings such as ourselves, the historical process is irrelevant; all we have is our legacy, but that legacy is lost to us (as individuals). Yet we are unique beings in that we are able to recognize the historical process as something larger than ourselves. We judge that process worthy or not worthy based on our own singular experience (we judge the universe; fortunately, it doesn’t judge us back). For me, the universe is a worthy endeavor because the lens through which I view it is colored with the relationships I have experienced; those relationships include humans and nature.
All the Socratic ideals are born again in the love we feel … for each other, for our families and tribes, and for the natural world. Walking a path that honors the planet and ourselves is a responsibility we share, you and I — a responsibility unlike any other in human history. And it is not just a responsibility, but also something more: It is a joy, and a privilege.