As the economic collapse rapidly accelerates, I’ve been thinking entirely too much about post-carbon living. Specifically, I’ve been contemplating my future role in the community I’ll be inhabiting. How will I make a contribution, and therefore justify my continued presence? What will I call my vocation, in the years ahead?
As I mentally peruse the jobs I’ve held, and compare them to a world without fossil fuels, I find the challenge ahead a bit daunting.
I started employment as an agricultural grunt. My first jobs, as a teenager in an agricultural area in the heart of the Aryan nation, fell into the category of hard labor. After future hay fields were cleared of timber, and then repeatedly plowed, I tossed sticks and rocks onto a wagon pulled by a slow-moving tractor. At the end of the day, covered from head to toe with several layers of fine agricultural soil, I had to be sprayed with a hose before my mother would allow me into the house. As I grew stronger, I moved up to bucking hay bales from field to truck and then from truck to barn. An over-developed work ethic made me quite good at both these jobs. But I no longer possess a teenager’s body, and job prospects are not particularly bright for activities that require fossil fuels, including large-scale timber removal and large-scale agriculture.
My first “real” job was wildland firefighter for a state lands department. Specifically, I worked summers between my undergraduate semesters as member of a helitack crew, escorted by helicopter or truck to wildfires in a million-acre protection area. Again, my over-developed work ethic, matched with a competitive drive and an inability to sleep, made me damned good at this job. I could hike all day with a heavy pack, then pound the ground all day with a pulaski. After a thirty-hour shift, I could sleep a couple hours and start all over again. But today, although I have the same inability to sleep, I lack the work ethic, competitive drive, and work-hardened body requisite for this job. There are other issues, too: I doubt we’ll be seeing many functioning helicopters, trucks, or state lands departments in the years ahead.
During semesters on campus, I held several jobs, the most notable of which were night janitor in the student union and roofer on the university’s indoor football stadium. I was a decent janitor, though my wife claims I’ve lost that ability. But I was a terrible construction worker. I kept dropping circular saws, thereby nearly killing my compatriots working below me on the huge roof, and I nearly killed myself when, too lazy to tie myself off as I was operating a nail gun halfway between the peak of the domed stadium and the ground, I tumbled, crashed, and collected an impressive rope burn on the ungloved hand holding my lifeline. Given the impending demise of large organizations, I don’t have to worry about killing myself on large construction projects. But these experiences are sobering evidence that my future vocations are limited by lack of technical skill.
I’ve spent nearly my entire working life in the academy, which has made it clear that a career in the ivory tower is damned poor preparation for post-carbon living.
So, then. What to do?
I suspect we’ll be able to barter a little food, and maybe even some water from our hand-pumped well. We have an orchard, and presumably it’ll produce some fruit. I don’t have much confidence in our ability to grow vegetables, but I suspect I’ll be able to shoot the occasional deer or collared peccary (i.e., javelina), and therefore generate food and good will for my community. Perhaps we’ll buy some solar panels, and therefore be able to process the occasional morsel for the community.
Personally, I’d like to continue teaching, though I’m unconvinced my specialties will be much in demand. Conservation biology, anybody? How about philosophy? Or the history of pedagogy? Yeah, right. I can do long division, and I can put together the occasional coherent paragraph, so perhaps I’ll be able to teach these skills in exchange for our many needs. Otherwise, I would seem to be relatively worthless to my community. I’m inclined to believe people who do not make themselves worthwhile will not be tolerated, once the days of economic growth cease and we can no longer support the traditional American lifestyle of carefree indulgence, replete as it is with free riders.
Ideas, anybody? Do you have a post-carbon vocation lined up? And more importantly, at least to me, what’s a worthless academician to do, once the academy — already structurally weakened by inattention to society’s needs — is crushed beneath the weight of its own hubris?