Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Message Decoded, Part 4: The Landscape of the Future

This week's reflection is part of an extended commentary on a short story I posted a few weeks back. Read on or catch up, if you're curious- it's your choice. 

This topographical survey of time past, present, and future would not be complete without considering the day-to-day reality of living in the age of peak oil. It can be easy to forget, when we debate the existential implications of petroleum geology in wordy online forums, that there are profound human dimensions to the crisis of this age, though they go by other names. Each time I walk to work down Queen Street, in the opposite direction from the centuries-old Joseph Schneider Haus, I pass small knots of people standing and chatting on the sidewalk outside the downtown job search resource centre. These people are my neighbours, and though I doubt they'd express their circumstances in this way, they are on the leading edge of peak oil.

I've mentioned before that I spent some time in the American South, and that it made a big impact on me. The place I where lived for five months in northwest Georgia is a refugee welcome centre situated on two hundred and fifty acres of field and forest, formerly a cotton plantation. The long-term residents there are a small community of Christians committed to a life of service together, and their ministry focuses on offering newly-arrived refugees a two-month respite on their land, teaching them daily English lessons, and connecting them with energetic young volunteers like myself. (They also grow pecans and sweet potatoes, among other delicious crops. Twenty-first century Georgian agriculture is the inspiration for my optimistic depiction of twenty-third century climate-changed Ontarian agriculture in "The Messengers").

My southern sojourn took place when I was twenty-one and halfway through a degree in Medieval Studies. I was becoming increasingly convinced that academic skill was not the most effective contribution I could make to the future I saw gathering on my horizon, and that higher education was an expensive and depressing sham in any case. Combine this frame of mind with my obsession with what, at that point, I was still calling 'the end of the world', and maybe you can imagine the kinds of things I liked to talk about with whoever would listen.

The conversation that changed my whole outlook came about two thirds of the way through my stay in Georgia. It was a warm spring afternoon, and I was digging a trench to lay a new water line from the well to the garden and goat pasture. Working with me that day was a young man visiting the community from his home on the outskirts of Chicago. He and his wife, both of whom could pass as white and middle-class, had decided a couple of years earlier to move into the poorest part of their city, an all-black neighbourhood with no access to paying jobs or even a grocery store. They had planted a garden and set about meeting their neighbours, with no higher purpose than to live in solidarity with those whom society had abandoned, to 'find the Holy Spirit moving on the margins', as they put it.

As the two of us laboured in the red Georgia mud I began talking about how important I thought it was to get back to the land, since that was what we'd be able to rely on when civilization collapsed. To my surprise, my companion got angry. He talked about his neighbours, about their struggles to survive and how little they had to hope for. He pointed out in no uncertain terms that my fear of the end of the world was itself a form of white middle class privilege, because for the kids in his neighbourhood, for the refugee kids I worked with every day, and for millions of others around the world, civilization had already collapsed. It had already ceased to be of any relevance for its most vulnerable members.

The full weight of that epiphany didn't sink in right away, but as months and years went by I reflected more and more on his reproach. Up until then I'd been prophesying some kind of tipping point, when the price of oil or the global climate or some kind of crisis would make everyone in the world look up and realize what they were living through. But since then I've come to think that although there might be many such moments in the years ahead of us, it's just too easy for those of us with money and social security nets to let the facts slide off us, and to confuse the urgency of 'issues' with the urgent needs of people. It's just too easy not to look up and notice the person standing before us on the street, hat in hand, even as more and more people slip through civilization's cracks into the uncertain world of modern poverty.

Unemployment is growing. How could it be otherwise in a society investing a greater and greater slice of its wealth into extracting an ever thinner wedge of energy to power its basic functions? The price of oil has increased fourfold since 2002 and fivefold from its twentieth century average. In the big picture, this means that fueling a complex civilization is becoming more and more expensive; in the little picture, it means that finding three dollars to catch the bus to the food bank is becoming more and more difficult. Peak oil isn't waiting to swoop in and get us- it's already here, just not evenly distributed. Peak oil, in the final analysis, is a social justice issue.

Another of the communities I visited in the South had a simple slogan to guide its daily practices: reduce the distance. To the degree that we can reduce the distance between ourselves and the poor, physically, socially, economically, spiritually, we will be that much less uncomfortable when we interact with our neighbours on the streets, and that much more prepared for the day when the safety nets fail us too, and we join their number. The moral of the peak oil story, after all, is that we're all going to have to learn to get by with less whether we like it or not. The sooner we prepare ourselves for that descent, the gentler it will be, and the greater our ability to invest in lifestyles and community infrastructure that enable living well with less.

What does that infrastructure look like? Consider the difference between modern poverty, which involves difficult choices between dependence on state welfare or on various black markets, or both, and the twenty-third century poverty I imagined in "The Messengers", which involves producing one's own livelihood with the hard labour of one's own hands. While it's by no means an easy solution, what I want to see is more community support for community-based entrepreneurship. That entrepreneurship doesn't have to involve subsistence farming, but it shouldn't involve high-tech gadgetry, as is the current craze in my city. Complex supply chains and manufacturing processes make the high-tech sector neither truly local nor truly sustainable in a low-energy future.

Local investments in local economies can be as simple as buying handmade jewelry from a fledgling artisan, or paying a couple dollars more for vegetables that came from down the road instead of from around the world. It can be as empowering as funding a young person to live and work in their hometown rather than migrating to the big city or to the oil patch in search of work. I know some fine people currently working in oil or other extractive industries, some of whom are related to me, and it would be wonderful to be able to bring them home to a bustling local economy that valued their time and talents.

Thus my wizardly ambitions have led me further and further into thoughts of economics and business, and I'm quite honestly astounded to have arrived where I am today. But before catching up to my own present, I want to conclude this reflection with another trip into the land of story. That'll be next week.


  1. Good post, Dylan. Yes, I completely agree with you. When I first learned about peak oil I was also expecting a sudden kind-of-cataclysmic collapse. Then I realized that collapse was already taking place, but slow motion and - as you said - unevenly distributed.

    But coming from a country that went from 7% to more than 25% of unemployment rate in few years (Spain), it is not difficult to realize that something is going wrong.

  2. Ángel, it's so good to hear perspectives like yours. The troubles we hear about all over Europe make a lot more sense when we fit them into this context.

    I was living in the UK in the fall of 2010, when British leaders started talking about 'austerity' as a remedy to economic troubles. (Not the kind of austerity I'm recommending in this post). I saw people around me organizing to oppose the kinds of drastic cuts to social services that were being proposed, but I didn't understand what it all meant at the time.

  3. I think the minority of humans who live in wealthier or more powerful countries have an enormous ability to shield ourselves from the effects of peak oil and things like it in the short term.

    Because of course when there isn't enough of a resource for everyone to have as much as they want, money and military power tends to dictate its distribution. So, people or countries who are able to, will use their power to keep control of whatever resource there is for as long as they (we) can. I think this is already happening.

    That said, it's very hard, if not impossible, to pinpoint exact causes and effects when it comes to specific events, since there are usually many causes, and whatever trends something like peak oil causes are added on top of the existing background noise of human wars and economic ups and downs.

  4. Basia, that's a good reminder to factor in 'background noise' whenever we tell a story like this. So often I want to say to people, "Oil- climate- economy- it's so simple!" when really it's anything but.

    I think the ethanol industry is a good example of what you're talking about with wealthier countries dictating distribution. In my grade 12 World Issues class we read a very pointed letter from Fidel Castro to the US explaining that turning corn into car fuel, while it looks nice on paper, would drive up the price of food beyond what Cubans could pay. Thanks, globalization.