Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Snow Day theory: Is Life as we know it Ending?

Yesterday, I had a conversation with Mike.

Mike said, waving his hand to indicate all the houses in view in my neighborhood, that all of this, this whole way of building, will be obsolete in five years time. It's too
energy wasteful. Seeing our heating bills last winter, I can't help but agree. And, he says, energy prices will only get worse.

There's a sense that everything's changing. This is largely driven, I think, by the ever-rising price of crude oil as well as growing awareness of global warming. We're also becoming more aware of the shortage of such basic commodities as water. As the environmentalists have been saying, for our society to become sustainable, how we live
will have to change.

A part of me says we're enjoying the thrill of exaggerating this crisis and in a few years everything will be all right, just as it was after the price shocks of the 1970s and early 1980s settled. But yet another part of me says, no, this is different. This time it's real, and we will have to change or "perish." Can it get more melodramatic?

I believe we will change, because we can change, and because perishing is so ... awful.

So what changes do I see? Snow day changes. For example, if we can't drive much, in the way that people can't during a big snowstorm, is that such a terrible thing? Maybe our lives would slow down and we'd get to meet and know our neighbors. What if we had to grow some of our own food and turn our non-productive yards into vegetable gardens and fruit orchards? Keep chickens in our garages? People did that in the 1930s, and it would not be so terrible to do so today. For many lawn enthusiasts, it wouldn't be much more work than the labor they put into nurturing the perfect grass and showiest ornamental flowers. We would have locally grown produce, our chickens would be treated more humanely than by agribusiness,and we would use fewer pesticides. We'd get exercise and our kids would learn more about the food chain and the cycle of life than that food comes wrapped in packaging in the supermarket.

And what about exercise? Would it be so terrible if our kids walked to and fro from school, as past generations of children have done? Most of them would not be kidnapped, raped or molested by perverts, because there are just not that many active perverts in the world. Plus, if people were actually staying in their communities, there would be more eyes to monitor and stop trouble. Would walking alone or with parents to or from activities be terrible? No, it would help everyone lose weight and be a chance to experience nature. Studies show too, that children who walk places have a better sense of space and of geography. And instead of far away activities, maybe parents --or kids -- would organize more games and events in the neighborhood, another old-fashioned practice.

Some people would be inconvenienced by having to use public transportation. Roger takes the coach bus and subway to work in Northern Virginia, and he is more tied to a schedule than if he drove. But it's hardly the end of the world. Using public transportation gives him a chance to read, sleep and experience community with his fellow bus riders.

Two generations ago, buses, subways and trolleys were the standard way to get around. A train to the beach, a bus to work, a bike ride to the mall --these are not tragedies. In fact, approached in the right spirit, they're adventures. And given how rushed everyone's life is, I wouldn't mind going back to a world in which, instead of everyone in a car rushing to and fro, the milkman (or woman) and perhaps the grocery store delivered the food. Not only would we probably regain all sorts of time now dribbled away in the car, it would probably cost less in the long run.

Of course, I dream of some mythic moment, some re-creation of a golden year--1949 or 1958 or?? --before our consumption began to consume us. I dream of that year existing without the sexism and racism that marred it. With a greener and safer mindset, so that we are not smoking, spraying pesticides in our homes and driving around without seatbelts.

I think in some ways we would regret living in a new world of limits where we wouldn't be able to buy every consumer good we want on a whim, and sometimes we would feel poor and sometimes we would have to make do without things we might really need. We would dream of the good old days of endless bounty, when you could throw out whatever was the least bit worn, dented or dated and replace it with something brand new. On the other hand, would it be so terrible to live without the choking, drowning, overwhelming clutter of consumer goods that has spawned a whole organization industry and a whole simplicity movement? Might it not be pleasant to know what you own and where it is? Isn't there something deep inside that feels there's some benefit in taking care of our belongings? Wouldn't we feel less uneasy in a world where it would make economic sense to repair a small appliance rather than throwing it out and replacing it? Wouldn't less, as the saying goes, be more?

Life is just as likely to get bad as to get better if we react poorly to seeming scarcity. A few could hoard, throwing others into want. People could fight each other for resources. Dictators could take over and try to turn back the clock on minority rights. Or true scarcity and poverty could come, never a good thing.

I hope the changes that may be here soon will be beneficial, a liberation from wretched excess, an opportunity to draw together for mutual support. Now's the time to do the spiritual work to build ourselves into the kind of people who react well to change and limits.

What are some other good changes an energy shortage could bring?

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