Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Literature and the Long Decent

I recently finished Sharon Astyk's excellent and book, Depletion and Abundance, and have begun The Long Descent, by the little known author John Michael Greer, who lives just a stone's throw away in Ashland, OR. So far, the book is exceptional, and has some of the most readable prose and rational long term thinking about the decline and fall of industrial civilization that I've yet read. Where James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency was perhaps the wittiest and most nhilistic, Sharon Astyk's the most inspirational, and Richard Heinberg's Peak Everything the most informative, on the subject of peak oil and resources, so far, Greer's has been the most poetic.
I separate peak oil and climate change in my mind as two separate entities because mainly, the subjects are separated, if unintentionally by their authors. Sharon Astyk points out, quite accurately, that they are approached by two different modes of thought. Peak oil is often studied by those who are concerned with the immanent danger to themselves or their families, and climate change science is often approached by those whose main concern is one of altruism for future generations. Both are legitimate concerns, and really, they should be viewed as one in the same problem: that is, the excessive consumption of resources by our industrial civilization an it's unreasonable expectations for the future.

They are, of course, the same problem, but again, she wisely notes, that they are both so major, and so pressing, that they frequently end up in competition with one another because they are simply too much for the psyche of the world to accept as one problem. For instance, my mother provides an excellent, if tragic, example.
When she discovered that her cancer was certainly terminal, and it had metastasized throughout much of her body- she was told that she could (an encouraged) to aggressively treat her liver cancer, though she would certainly perish of the lung cancer she also had shortly thereafter (if they were to miraculously cure the former). Now it is widely known that lung cancer is much more painful and unpleasant to die of, and she reasonably said
"Well, why bother treating one if I'm just going to die from the other?" but this did not, apparently, occur to the people who had suggested the expensive and experimental treatment for the liver cancer. It seems obvious. It's cancer- it's terminal- why *potentially* extend your life by a few paltry months if your death will be so much worse in the end? But this is the meat of the problem that we will face in the coming years, and I personally expect our world to opt for the futile treatment.
That is, when we run short of oil, as the Nazis did in WWII, we will expend every resource we have left to make liquid coal fuels in our cars an trucks. We will almost undoubtedly be in such fierce denial that we burn every last ounce of extractable fossil fuel to maintain our fading way of life.

My mother chose dignity and the brevity of a life lived by the ideals she had always maintained. One of the things her mother recounted to me before her recent passing was an idyllic scene of a daughter eschewing her mother's help at doing dishes
"Me do it my own self!" She exclaimed, and this is very much the way the rest of her life was lived. To face her own problems without unnecessary intervention or help- but we will not be so brave, I think. We will perhaps see the problem- I think we already do (peak oil)- but we will choose to ignore it until it becomes intertwined inexorably with a new an bigger problem (climate change) and perhaps we already have gotten to the point where the two have become one.
John Michael Greer speaks eloquently of past civilizations crumbling and declining until the feats of their ancestors become myth and legend. He mentions that in the future, a man walking on the moon might fade into such. It does not seem unreasonable, but it really hit me with a force that sustained-
We are not destined for the stars, as I and so many others (Carl Sagan, for one) had hoped, but instead for the earth. Our cities will crumble into dust and our children will live, confused, resentful, angry, and perhaps desperate in the rubble.
At some distant and unimaginable time not too long from now, the idea of space travel will be the stuff of fairy tales, not of the evening news.
We think that technology can invent a way but of a finite world only because we are so engrossed in our consumption. It would be wise for us to remember that Einstein said (misquoted her) you cannot invent your way out of a problem using the same technology that created it. We cannot solve our problems with technology. It is not a source of energy, but an invention of it.
We have burned hundres of millions of years of condensed sunlight in the space of a couple hundred years. We feel entitled to more only because we do not remember our lives before it.
Like a man at a fine dinner imagining the next course of his meal, but the larder is empty. He cannot conceive that there will be no dessert, only desert.
It is hard to swallow, even for me, but the longer I look, the more barren the pantry appears. I realize I've eaten all my rations and left nothing for tomorrow.
I feel especially bad about this for my son.
I've begun writing him a journal- like Sarah Connor but on paper rather than tape.
In case I cannot tell him I am sorry tomorrow, I tell him today.


  1. Here by way of Archdruid Greer's blog. Yep. Basically. Hadn't read the Gore piece in the RS. Not sure I should thank. Sad it is.

  2. @Lloyd Lincoln ClarkHey, Radical- I haven't yet gotten a blog visitor I don't personally know, so you get a gold star. Thanks for popping by!

    The Gore piece tried to be inspirational and inflammatory but just ended up totally missing the point and disgusting me. You're not missing out.
    Feel free to come back any time. Ps, I heard Yoda speaking your comment.