This essay is rife with the type of self-indulgence I try to avoid, often unsuccessfully. It’s a summary of my life’s story. It begins by insulting the readers, before the end of this first paragraph, and it ends with an unavoidably maundering, self-absorbed synopsis of recent, personal events. I doubt it’s worth your time to read. But I’m a poor judge of what works for people here. My latest essay was a thoughtful collaboration with three brilliant scholars (and me), and it generated little attention. So maybe the readers of this blog are similar to the rest of the world’s industrial citizens, more interested in personal-interest accounts than serious information that impacts your lives.
During my youth, I was immersed in a culture of extraction and consumption. I was born in the heart of the Aryan nation in a small mining town in the panhandle of Idaho and I grew up in a tiny, redneck, back-woods logging town. Consumption was, and is, the prevailing culture in the United States. As with the extraction of ore and timber needed to support the unquestioned goal of economic growth, the consumption of materials and the costs associated with that consumption rarely are brought before the citizenry for critical evaluation. We live in the Age of Entitlement, assuming we deserve all we unquestioningly consume.
Although a majority of my school-age classmates denigrated education and wound up working in the mines or in the woods, I took a different route. Inspired by the words and examples of my parents — both lifelong educators — I vigorously pursued advancement through education, and completed a Ph.D. only nine years after I graduated from high school. Not surprisingly, my university degrees in forestry and range science focused on the production of natural resources. Higher education led to a twenty-year career at a major research university, where my teaching and research focused initially on management of natural resources and, later, on a life of excellence.
During my final decade in the classroom, I took a strongly Socratic turn, asking my students how to pursue a life of excellence. Bound together as a corps of discovery in the classroom, we focused on the six questions Socrates found so relevant to the human condition and a life of excellence: What is courage? What is good? What is justice? What is moderation? What is piety? What is virtue?
Throughout my career in higher education, I nurtured the personal and professional growth of students and I questioned myriad aspects of contemporary American culture, typically via guest commentaries in various newspapers. Neither individual attention to students nor questions about culture were welcomed by university administrators, but my tenured status and international reputation for excellent scholarship allowed me to pursue the work I loved. In addition to writing numerous articles and books, I delivered about ten presentations each year to a wide range of audiences, from student anarchists to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Working at a major research university required me to live in a in a city, the very apex of empire. For years, I avoided the nagging voice in my head as it pointed out the horrific costs of imperial living: destruction of the living planet, obedience at home, and oppression abroad. Eventually, though, I could no longer ignore the powerful words of Arundhati Roy in her insightful 2001 book, Power Politics: “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”
And then there’s the philosophy of Camus, which reminds us about the absurdity of our existence as well as finding worth in the act of rebellion. Rebellion cannot be meaningfully pursued while one is shackled to an imperial institution, as Chris Hedges points out in this week’s excellent essay, “Calling All Rebels.”
I departed university life for many reasons, among them to dedicate more time informing the world’s citizens about the consequences of the way we live. My message centers on the twin sides of the fossil-fuel coin: global climate change and energy decline (commonly known as “peak oil”). After all, the most important race in the history of humanity is under way, although the world’s governments and the mainstream media have failed to give notice. The world’s climate is changing at an accelerating rate, with profound implications for nature and the humans who depend on the natural world. In addition, the world’s energy supply is rapidly declining, which is leading to significant contraction of the world’s industrial economy. These unprecedented phenomena impact every aspect of life on Earth, notably including our ability to protect the living planet on which we depend for our own survival. Time is not on our side.
If we continue with business as usual, we likely are committed to a 4 C rise in average global temperature by mid-century. Such a profound and rapid rise in global temperature will reduce, to near zero, human habitat on Earth. A reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 80% represents the single remaining hope to save the living planet on which we depend. Such a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases will require either a near-term trip to the post-industrial Stone Age or a rapid accounting for the actual costs associated with consuming fossil fuels. The latter will require immediate recognition of the explicit links between environmental protection, social justice, and the human economy and therefore an unprecedented transition to physical economics. Either way, we’re nearing the end of the Age of Entitlement and drawing inexorably closer to the Age of Consequences.
Although ecological forecasting is fraught with uncertainty, there is little doubt that some options have been permanently closed and others pose significant challenges in the years ahead. For example, long-term economic growth is precluded by inaccessibility to inexpensive sources of energy, and we are committed to at an average global temperature increase of at least 2 C. Dealing with the two sides of the fossil-fuel coin — global climate change and reduced energy availability — will require enormous courage, compassion, and creativity.
In addition to inspiration and motivation, we need practical, local solutions to mitigate for climate change and energy decline (it is too late for societal-level solutions to either predicament). Local solutions must be based on a realistic set of assumptions about climate and energy, and my message centers on the moral, philosophical, and pragmatic aspects of climate change and energy decline. My writing and presentations describe the nature of our predicaments, offer a series of assumptions based on forecasts for climate change and energy decline, give a general template for action, and then deliver a series of practical solutions within the realm of strengthening the links between environmental protection, social justice, and the human economy.
But, as should be obvious, I’m having damned little impact. I know exactly three people who, influenced by my message, have changed their lives in any way at all. I am one of them. The other two made minor changes in lifestyle when they began sharing their property with me. Considering how difficult it is to change ourselves, we shouldn’t expect to be able to use words to change others.
At the height of a productive career characterized by frequent awards for teaching and research, my moral compass drove me away from the relative ease of a highly paid job in exchange for the joy of stewarding life in a small community. More than two decades after I started down the academic path that led to a productive career in the ivory tower — and much to the amazement and criticism of my colleagues — I returned to my rural roots to live in an off-grid, straw-bale house where I practice my lifelong interest in sustainable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of my rural community.
I am fully aware that rural life has its benighted side. Walking to school at the tender age of ten, a classmate three years my senior aimed a rifle out his bedroom window at the base of my neck. I kept walking, and failed to mention the unremarkable event to my parents for two decades. It simply never came up. But society has changed during the last forty years, and my new rural community is not as benighted as the community of my youth. We understand and appreciate diversity in various forms, and members of the community seek to emphasize the attributes that bring us together, rather than those that drive us apart.
As I look out the picture windows of the mud hut this overcast morning, snow-capped mountains in the nearby wilderness provide a stunning backdrop to the last few sandhill cranes in this small valley. The cranes are among the last to leave their winter home before heading north for an Idaho summer. They remind me that some things are worth supreme sacrifices. Some things are worth dying for, the living planet included.
It’s not at all clear that my decision to abandon the empire was the right one. I know it will extend my life when the ongoing economic collapse is complete, and I know it is the morally appropriate decision (as if a dozen people in this country give a shit about morality). But Albert Einstein seems mistaken, at least in this case: “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.”
My own example has generated plenty of scorn, but essentially no influence. On the other hand, the imperialism of living in the city and teaching at a university has rewards that extend well beyond the monetary realm. I miss working with young people every hour of every day. I miss comforting the downtrodden, notably in facilities of incarceration, every day. And I miss afflicting the comfortable, notably hard-hearted university administrators, at least weekly.
So here I sit, alternately staring at the screen of empire and staring out the window into timeless beauty. I contemplate the timing of imperial collapse and the implications for the tattered remains of the living planet. Half a century (and one week) into an insignificant life seesawing between service and self-absorption, I wonder, as always, what to do. My heart, heavy as the unbroken clouds overhead, threatens to break when I think about what we’ve done in pursuit of progress.
Spring’s resplendence lies ahead, with its promise of renewal. Is there world enough, and time? Will we yet find a way to destroy a lineage 45 million years old, or will the haunting call of the sandhill crane make it through the bottleneck of human industry?
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