Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Post-Peak Society: Dystopia, or Opportunity?

The other night, my wife and I took our girls to our local bookstore. While I was browsing the photography books with my older daughter, I heard my wife call out, "Oh, Phil, here's something that's right up your alley."

Sure enough, James Howard Kunstler's novel The Witch Of Hebron articulates almost word-for-word the dystopic vision of the world after petroleum that I have been agitating about with my friends and colleagues for several years now. Here's the description from the inside cover:

Kunstler expands on his vision of a post-oil society with a new novel about an America in which the electricity has flickered off, the Internet is a distant memory, and the government is little more than a rumor. In the tiny hamlet of Union Grove, New York, travel is horse-drawn and farming is back at the center of life. But it’s no pastoral haven. Wars are fought over dwindling resources and illness is a constant presence. Bandits roam the countryside, preying on the weak. And a sinister cult threatens to shatter Union Grove’s fragile stability.

True as Kunstler's novel is to my worst boom, gloom, and doom diatribes, I recoil from reading it. And only in part because I know better than to read such things before bedtime.

First of all, brooding about such a dark future doesn't lend itself to the healthiest mental and emotional state. Imagining the worst contriubtes to fear, anxiety, and just plain moodiness: at some level of our being, we believe in what we imagine.

More importantly, what you imagine sets your overall direction in life. In place of the fear and cynicism of Kunstler's vision, why not embrace the idea of shifting, as activist Joanna Macey describes it, "from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization."

As the high cost of petroleum makes shipping food from places as far away as China impractical, for example, local agriculture could return to being a more significant portion of our food supply. Reliance on local food sources, in turn, would lend itself to a higher quality of connection with the people in our immediate surroundings. It would also make us more conscious of the quality of our immediate environment. Who would tolerate fracking knowing just how precious those local water and agricultural resources are?

You don't have to get discouraged by the level of effort necessary to steer an entire civilization in the right direction. You only have to see the change in your mind's eye and take small steps towards living that change. Macey describes the challenge as "The essential adventure of our time." Indeed.

Don't get me wrong. I still believe that we're in for some rough spots in this adventure. Go ahead and stockpile your flashlights, batteries, food, and wind-up radios to prepare not only for a Katrina-scale weather event, but also for the rolling blackouts and unpredictable region-wide power outages that peak-oil will bring. (I recommend The Ultimate Suburban Suvivalist Guide for a full picture of how to prepare in a reasonable way). But, the difficulties can give way to a better future -- if we dare to imagine.