So, the world didn’t end last week, but it occurs to me that we may have missed the point. We may have missed the idea that the whole thing was a metaphor. And all the attention paid was about noticing how the idea wears. It doesn’t wear very well, actually. It’s a tight, uncomfortable fit. And that is exactly the point.
I’ve been reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth(reader beware: it will likely stir thoughts similar to those expressed in this post), the primary message of which is basically – or rather, exactly – that it’s over. The party, that is. The party of living the way we all have here. The party of turning on any and every light in the house at will. The party of climbing in the car and driving, tank full, down any road for just as long as we choose. The party of putting on massive electronic extravaganza concerts that last a couple of hours, using more wattage than a small country, purely for own entertainment.
As we all have finally agreed, so much fossil fuel consumption has pushed the planet into a warming mode. While not unprecedented on the planet, the levels are unprecedented in our short time here. And although it’s not such a big deal for the planet (it has experienced many extremes since its beginning), it is undoubtedly a very big deal for us. The big deal is quite simply that the natural systems we depend on to sustain our way of life are in flux: less ice on the poles means more water in the oceans. More water in the oceans means, among other things, lots of people will be moving to higher ground (“envirogees,” I hear they are called). And incidentally, the oceans are also more acidic and warmer, and that combination means the end of, well, for one thing, reefs. Coral reefs. So what? Scuba diving will be impaired? Well, yes, but the much bigger issue is that one of the sea’s major food lines and housing complexes is shutting down, meaning the whole order under that undulating blue sheen that we depend on is not so dependable anymore.
And in case you’re thinking that renewables will solve it, McKibben peremptorily explains that less ice and warmer temps also mean that peat bogs, great big carbon sinks of wet decaying vegetation (on their way to becoming coal) are very likely to dry out, and in the process emit as much or more carbon as we do. As we do. And there are other phenomena like this as well, which boils down to: things are changing and will continue to change whether or not we figure out a new energy source to feed our insatiable thirst for more. (And with how slow-going government policy on this is, we really shouldn’t count on it.)
It’s a strange thought to think that we may be heading, for the first time in history, backward. I don’t mean backward in thought, but in actual activity. I realized that pretty much everything I do is dependent on fossil fuel. Yup. In fact, there may not be anything I do that isn’t. Scanning the list of my activities the thing I came up with that just might be fossil fuel free was thinking. But then I realized that I mostly think in my house, or my office, or my car, or an airplane or hotel, and many times I am typing those thoughts onto a keyboard. Even when I am outside, my thoughts soon turn to when I will go back inside, because that’s really where I live. So, even my thinking is dependent on fossil fuel.
And then the other day a Brainpicker tweet caught my eye: “The medium is not the message.” I’ve been working on a blog about Marshall McLuhan, whose famous words inspired that tweet, and so I took a peek. It was about handwritten newspapers. And what struck me was not the point being made, but rather that, in Japan, in the aftermath of the earthquake, newspapers were being written by hand and posted around the community, as was done in villages hundreds of years ago.
It occurred to me that we might just find ourselves, if not in a downright emergency on the order of Japan (but again, we might), where we are forced to scratch out our daily dispatches with pen on paper, then at least facing a shortage. And that shortage might well be addressed by rationing, like we do with water in times of drought. We might be pressed to stop using all our lights (and I-pods, refrigerators, TVs, laptops, blow dryers, and on and on) and driving to the coast and back, and putting on rock concert extravaganzas, or at least to make real choices among the activities that we take as routine in our lives.
And I thought, that’s an idea worth trying on, trying out, getting used to as a practice. It’s an odd fit, but a heckuva lot more wearable than the one where we all perish under a hot, burning sea of our own making. And I said to myself, it might not be that bad. We’ll still be who we are, but just more like how we were a hundred years or so ago. Think Thoreau or Muir. Or less romanticized, like much of the less-developed world today where people live their whole lives without the glut of energy made possible by fossil fuel. It’ll be an adjustment for many, and a lot of us won’t make it. But those who do will get back to the basics: how to grow, gather or hunt food with our two hands. How to tell good water from bad with our noses. How to tell stories, sing songs, and how to think our thoughts under the stars, knowing back inside is just about the same.
My fossil fuel diet experiment: 6 hours per week no electricity use, and batteries and nighttime don’t count. What’s yours?
UPDATE: Since I posted this piece, this came out. And you thought I was blowing things out of proportion…