I’m getting cranky, judging from several comments on this blog and on Facebook (where my latest entries have been posted and then re-posted by contacts there). Not to pick nits, but I’m getting crankier. But, like all rationalizing animals, I have a good excuse. As my awareness grows, hopefully along with the awareness of other humans, about the depths to which we are plundering the planet to support our greed, our behavior seems to change in exactly the wrong direction.
I’m reminded of this quote from Lily Tomlin: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” And lest you think cynicism is a bad thing, here’s a reminder from George Carlin that closely corresponds to my own view: “Scratch any cynic, and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”
Knowing how badly we’re destroying the living planet on which we depend is bad enough to make me a little cranky. But I’ve been there for years. Consider, for example, this line from a book I wrote in the autumn of 2003: “Americans often initiate military conflict in foreign lands with no apparent role except to secure natural resources or further political careers, and the United States government continues to sell these acts of aggression to a willing public that desperately wants to deny its own role in mass murder.” What’s really elevated my crankiness during the last couple years is the degree to which we are willing to stoke the planet’s fossil-fuel furnace, even to the point of destroying habitat for our own species. Add to that the astonishing number of people who just don’t give a damn what we’re doing to the planet, and ourselves, and who present no alternatives to bringing the industrial machine of death grinding to a halt, and I’m a little surprised I haven’t (1) gone postal or (2) been placed in confinement by the government. I don’t doubt, though, that every dissident will soon be considered a terrorist.
I thought we were too self-centered to destroy habitat for human beings on this most wondrous of rocks. But apparently the nature of our self-absorption is entirely too personal. We are perfectly willing to destroy our species, and every other one on Earth, if the few of us in the industrialized world can have the latest piece of technology.
I passed cranky a year ago. At this point I’m outraged, along with anybody who’s actually paying attention. If I could only believe in political solutions, I’d be back at cranky. If I could foolishly believe we have 300 years of long descent into a technologically poorer but biologically richer world, I’d be a happy man. But instead, I see what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. I see no chance of a decent uprising from the masses, hence no chance to prune the tree of liberty in my time (much less every generation, as Thomas Jefferson suggested). I see us stuck in our proverbial, planet-raping ruts, too content with the bread and circuses of the Technomessiah to bring about change through action.
The failure of leadership in light of peak oil and global climate change is comprehensive. At this late juncture, there is no politically viable solution for either phenomenon. Once, perhaps, there was. But we let the solutions slip away.
Actually, we didn’t so much let them slip away as we drove them away with the biggest whip we could muster. We banished Jimmy Carter from office, and from the political conversation, the moment he uttered a series of solutions to our fossil-fuel addiction. We never stood a chance with respect to runaway greenhouse: As soon as we committed ourselves to infinite growth on a finite planet by selecting fossil fuels instead of rational behavior, we destroyed any reasonable chance of dealing with our fossil-fuel addiction and therefore destined ourselves and the living planet to a leap from the political frying pan to the fires of hell.
We’re left with two politically unviable choices: economic meltdown or extinction of our species (and many others). To the maximum possible extent, we are choosing both heinous outcomes. But at some point, the ongoing economic meltdown reaches its inevitable completion at the hand of peak oil. Regardless of the specific timing, the Renaissance will need leaders, and those leaders are with us today. Among the relevant questions: Who are they, and how will they lead?
It’s too late for leadership from my generation, which failed miserably. We created the twin disasters now unfolding. We brought you Ronald Reagan and all the selfish bastards who followed in his shoes, right up to the current Warmonger-in-Chief. We brought you abysmal leadership beyond the Oval Office as well, including Congress, state and local governments, entrepreneurs, heads of corporations and non-profit organizations, and pathetic, growth-addicted “educational” institutions. I’ve no doubt I missed many of the parties responsible for the crises we face, but there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the failure of leadership is overwhelmingly comprehensive and comprehensively pathetic.
As I’ve indicated previously, evolution clearly dealt us a bad hand. It pushes us to the “flight-or-fight” response of survival. The survivors are driven to procreate. Those who survive and procreate then are driven to accumulate material possessions. Is it any wonder the financial elite run the industrialized world? Or that they are leading us to disaster?
Where has this evolutionary play led us? And, equally importantly, where do we turn from here? Who will lead, and how?
During the last few years, I have interacted closely with about a hundred individuals between the ages of 18 and 34, including many students and a passel of nieces and nephews. These young people represent the pool from which post-carbon leaders must come. It is their future, and they are now reaching the age of leadership. Somehow, people must emerge from this pool to lead us to a brighter tomorrow, sans electricity.
Although I’m typically unremitting in my optimism about economic collapse and therefore dodging the bullet of human extinction, my optimism wanes when I think about leadership in the post-carbon era. Of those hundred or so individuals I’ve come to know reasonably well, fewer than a handful give me cause for hope. Fewer than a handful possess the necessary traits to survive economic collapse, much less assume a leadership role on the other side.
Survival alone requires the proper psychological outlook, physical stamina, and a decent dose of intelligence. The first criterion alone eliminates at least eight of ten potential candidates. Almost nobody under the age of thirty is willing to deal with a low-energy, poverty-infused personal reality if it means forgoing his cell phone. Despite plenty of opportunities to observe non-industrial cultures in the world — arguably, more opportunities than any people in the history of the planet — a vast majority of today’s youngsters cannot envision economic collapse even when it surrounds them. A life without electricity, cheap food at the grocery store, and water coming out the taps is as foreign as a day without i-Pods and online porn. The hyper-indulgence of the generations has ratcheted up nearly beyond belief, and certainly beyond the point of comfortably returning to a life where a walk in the woods is viewed as a privilege instead of a burden.
While the ability to deal with the real world was plummeting to its current near-zero nadir, the notion that physical stamina is meritorious has largely disappeared from American life. Somewhere along the way, bicycling came to require a spandex uniform, and walking was relegated to losers who could not afford a new car. Meanwhile, living close to the land became a quaint notion mutually exclusive from a culturally important position in life (cf. texting and playing video games). For the vanishingly small proportion of individuals who are physically fit and willing to deal with an unfamiliar set of circumstances in the years ahead, the ability to exert intelligent leadership represents a daunting challenge. The challenge appears far too great for most of the people I know, nearly all of whom are wondering how they can scam the current system instead of wondering how they can help build a new one. The idea that the new one should be based on service to Earth and impoverished humans hasn’t yet entered the collective consciousness of the new “me” generation.
Obviously, I don’t know who will fill the leadership gap, or how they will do it. But I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from over-indulgent children who are unwilling to grow up. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from youngsters who think the placement of their tattoos is more important than the placement of their gardens. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from ill-mannered children who dress for dinner in clownish clothes, untied shoes, and sideways baseball caps. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from people who think cars of the future will save us, instead of further destroying the living planet and our chances of survival. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from thoughtless automatons who irrationally believe technology will solve all our problems, instead of recognizing that technology is self-defeating. I’m pretty sure the answers won’t come from people who believe cities to be the apex of life on Earth, and who believe rural living is for bumpkins.
It’s not that I blame these overgrown children for whom maturity is a mirage. They are products of culture, and culture has led them into the misguided belief that the fossil-fuel fiesta is just getting started.
Instead, the best party on Earth is about to begin. Personally, I couldn’t be happier about it. But I’m guessing the children won’t be pleased.