I’m headed to the mud hut for a few days, where I’ll be working on cisterns, the outdoor kitchen, and some raised garden beds. I used my magnus opus as the basis for a luncheon talk I’ll be giving next month to kick off the Honors College’s once-a-month series. Students in the Honors College were asked to read Daniel Quinn’s book, Ishmael, during the summer. Below, I’ve attached the draft transcript of my talk for your comments.
If you’re in Tucson this afternoon, I’ll be reading from, and signing, my latest book at the main bookstore on campus. The gig’s at 4:30 p.m., and I’d like to meet you there.
The typical approach at events such as this one, targeted at our best and brightest, is to inspire you to greatness by telling you that you are this country’s most valuable resource. I’m not going to do that, because I think it would scare the hell out of you. After all, have you seen what we do to precious resources in this country?
Daniel Quinn is a wonderful author, and Ishmael is his signature book. He has written many other books and articles, but Ishmael sets the general theme and tone for most of his writings. I interpret the overall themes as two-fold: First, civilization represents a grave threat to other species and cultures, and even to our own species, and second, we can do better.
I’ll say that again, just to make sure we’re on the same page: Civilization represents a grave threat to the existence of myriad cultures and species, including our own species. And we can do better.
We cannot do better by acting in our usual self-absorbed manner. In one of his many written works, Quinn relates a conversation he had with his spiritual advisor: “my problem is not that I thought highly of myself … not that I thought lowly of myself … but that I thought constantly of myself.” Quinn’s experience describes my life so far, and I suspect you can identify with it as well. We’ll have to start thinking about others, including the most distant of others, if we’re to deal effectively with the problem of civilization.
Obviously, we can’t do better simply by saying we can. Joining the Sierra Club isn’t going to save the polar bear, much less humankind. To use Quinn’s words, Mother Culture provides powerful disincentives for those who struggle against her. Doing better will require us to swim upstream against a cultural current so strong, so pervasive, and so embedded in our psyche that we don’t even recognize the current. We’re fish in a river, unaware that there’s an ocean, much less a landbase. If you intend to think your way out of this cultural mess, you’ll think of Nietzsche’s Overman. You’ll think of Orwell’s modest heroes. You’ll think of all the quirky, off-beat, out of touch, counter-culture contrarians you’ve ever met. You’ll think.
As Quinn assures you, that thinking will be painful. And if you think thinking will be painful, imagine acting on those thoughts. Now remember Nietzsche, and how disparaged he was throughout his life. Remember Orwell’s modest heroes, and how they were treated. Try to remember your initial reaction to those counter-culture contrarians.
Still want to save the world, or at least a few of the more than 200 species we drive to extinction every day? You can expect some resistance along the way.
As it turns out, the Renaissance has begun. The end of civilization is at hand, and you’re right in the middle of it. It’s beginning to look as if you won’t have to do a thing, that civilization is crashing down all by itself. Not that this knowledge should encourage you to postpone action. Action is the antidote of despair, and we need all hands on deck if we’re going to sink the ship of civilization before even more cultures, species, and humans are killed.
So, as the title of my presentation indicates, I have good news and bad news. I’ll start with the good news, and spend most of my time talking about it. The bad news is so bad it’s unthinkable, so we’ll have to think of something else.
Here’s the good news about sustainability: We’re almost there. The Great Awakening has begun, despite Mother Culture’s best efforts to ward it off.
We passed the world oil peak more than three years ago. From this point forward, oil becomes increasingly expensive and unavailable. Crude oil is the master resource, the one that allows us to use coal, uranium, solar panels, wind turbines, and personal cars. It’s the resource, in other words, that allows us, in Quinn’s words, to consume the planet.
Within a relatively short period of time, the high price and low availability of oil ensures no more happy motoring to Wal-Mart — indeed, no more Wal-Mart — with the end of civilization fast on the heels of the end of Wal-Mart. No more diesel-powered tankers to bring next year’s Ipod. No more diesel-powered trucks to bring food to the grocery store. No more electricity. No more water coming out the taps. Soon enough, we’ll be right back in the Stone Age, living sustainably on the land.
That’s the good news, part one.
Lacking cheap oil, and eventually lacking access to the distillates of oil, we can no longer consume the planet. Since extinction of species is strongly correlated with economic growth, the global rate of extinction is bound to fall precipitously.
If that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is. And it gets better.
Lacking cheap oil, and eventually lacking access to the distillates of oil, western civilization is precluded from destroying languages and entire cultures at an accelerating rate.
If you’re interested in humankind, I saved the best for last: Lacking cheap oil, and eventually lacking access to the distillates of oil, we cannot fry the planet beyond the point of human habitability. With ready access to cheap oil, we will almost certainly make the planet uninhabitable to humans by the end of this century. Some projections indicate a much more rapid transition, that we’ll run out of habitat for humans within three decades. The most dire projections indicate we cannot stop the frying of the planet, that inertia in the climate system precludes human habitat even if we cease burning all fossil fuels today.
That’s the bad news: It’s too late to save our sorry … uh, species … as if we were worth saving anyway.
But, in the spirit of Daniel Quinn and his favorite gorilla, I’m focusing on the good news: the collapse of civilization and the consequent Renaissance.
The good news doesn’t come without strings, of course. Fossil fuels have allowed us to greatly exceed the human carrying capacity of the planet, albeit only temporarily. Consider the tiny example of this event: Ready access to cheap oil allows us to enjoy this well-traveled food and 10,000-year-old water in a room with a “civilized” temperature. Extrapolate to every event, in every location, at all times. We’re long past due for a Malthusian-style correction that will reduce the human population from its current 6.7 billion to a much, much lower number. Informed estimates of human mortality run as high at 90%. It would be difficult to overestimate the magnitude of the human suffering likely to result from a rapid decline in access to crude oil.
When I talk about the good news, and put it in such stark terms, people often ask me how I retain hope. It’s a fair question: I’ve been described as tall, dark, and gloomy, especially by people in Mother Culture’s main stream.
So let’s talk about hope. 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 parents and for our children, 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’m 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 sustainability 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, compassion, and creativity. 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, thinking about — and talking about — our common future.
With hope shining like a beacon, we struggle together against increasingly long odds … for the greatest of all possible goals.
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. 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.
Walking a path that honors the planet and ourselves is a responsibility we share, you and I — a responsibility rooted in hope and therefore in love — a responsibility completely unlike any other in human history. And it is not just a responsibility, but also something more: It is a joy, and a privilege.