Mark came home from Sunbow last week with 42 pounds of tomatoes and the pronouncement “Harry thinks we’re about to enter the Long Emergency.” I sighed. The Long Emergency, which comes from a book with the same title, is the phrase leftists use to describe what is going to happen to our civilization when we run out of oil. Some people see great doom and chaos—a return to primal living, no food, no laws, no coffee—while others try to be more cheerful. Life will be like living during the Great Depression, only with Global Warming involved. Having read The Grapes of Wrath with my class last year, that sounds bad enough. I have to admit, I worry about the Long Emergency quite a bit. I’d like to think that we are a mature enough society to move into the changes ahead gracefully but I’m afraid that we are all going to go kicking and screaming into the abyss.
Three or four years ago, our house was on the “Eco-Home Tour on Wheels” organized by NWEI, not because we are Eco-Saints, but because it was my idea in the first place. There were three houses: Margi showed people her new solar power array, Maureen talked about organic household cleaners and composting, and I talked about buying in bulk and living in a small house. Most people came to our house because I was interviewed by the GT (not that hard a feat, to be honest) and they wanted to see the color of our kitchen and meet Gracie the chicken, who was featured in the photograph. It was fun. I showed off glass jars of beans, extolled the virtues of a 625 square foot house, and sent them off to watch Mark turn the compost. They asked the usual questions. “How do I remember to take a bag to the store?” “Where the herbs raised here?” “How old is that fig tree? It’s huge!” One man, however, asked me “What do you miss most?” I looked at him, totally baffled. “ Miss most?” I asked. “Yeah,” he persisted. “Nothing,” I said. He moved on to contemplate the compost.
What do we miss most? I realized, later, that he thought we were a pair of Voluntary Simplicity Gurus—those people who give up their huge houses and third car and vacations in Mexico because they have seen the Evil in their consumptive ways then write books about it, quoting Thoreau and Gandhi and Jesus. Not us. We never made it to that level of consumption. This little house is as good as it has ever been and that’s okay. I’ve been practicing “Voluntary Simplicity” all of my life—other people call it being poor, but having a strong community. I have always bought my beans and flour in bulk and stored them in the same jars—those three flour jars came from my year of working at Shop and Save right after college. I have always bought my clothes and decorations at thrift shops, loved the local library, rode my bike and walked everywhere. I believe in bartered services and a 24 hour waiting period before any new purchase. I’ve always had a savings account. I’m basically cheap—and now those practices are “green” and hip.
What have I changed in the past fifteen years, as the Long Emergency weighs more heavily on my mind? What do I miss? Ok. I no longer drive to the mountains to hike alone. I can’t justify the gas consumption. And I have friends who would love to go. I no longer hike alone; I miss the quiet. I worry about flying. I used to like flying—peering down on the earth’s patterns, eating weird food, arriving across the country in one afternoon. I no longer enjoy that. I rarely fly. But what I really miss most is the not knowing, the casual decision-making about daily consumption. It’s a “paper or plastic” debate in my head every day and the question really is—do you need this at all? And, does it really matter what I do?
For years, we knew we would run out of oil someday—but it was a long way off. Gas was a dime a gallon when I was a child. A dime. No one thought we’d run out anytime soon. Now we know. We are going to run out of oil. Soon. We may have already passed the peak of oil production; clearly, as the gulf oil disaster shows us, we have passed the peak of easy oil production. Scientists debate the year, but not the fact. We will run out. Oil is going to get much more expensive and the cheap food and trinkets we buy everyday are no longer going to be there. Happy Meals are not going to exist. I know this. Technology may help us, but it will not save us. Individual actions make us feel better and they can remind us to remember the larger picture, but they will not save us. We, as a society, need to drastically change our relationship with energy and consumption.
So, what do we do? Do we begin to make changes now—institute a carbon tax, which will raise the price of many things, and so reduce consumption, end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and use that money to build the infrastructure like wind turbines and public transport to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, tax McMansions and SUVs so that they no longer dominate the landscape and increase consumption just by the sheer size of the space to be filled? Or do we just go blithely on, as we have, and allow the world to collapse around us. Say to our grandchildren, when they ask—why didn’t you do something?—that it was more fun to drive a big truck to the grocery store than walk. It was easier to allow Democrats and Republicans to posture across the aisle than to address the complex issues around the limits of fossil fuels. To wait for another country – India, China-- to do something first so that the United States economy would not suffer. I’d like for us to go gracefully into this new world, working together to make the needed changes so that our society survives and thrives in a post-oil world. I read books about car free cities and other designs for civilization. And they give me hope. Then I hear —when Amy Goodman interviewed a young man from the Maldives who asked “If you knew that your actions were killing someone—would you continue?”—or I look at another huge, jacked up truck cruising down my street, driven by a college kid, and I don’t know.