I have managed to completely freak Zuska out, and for that, I can only offer both apologies and sympathy. It really sucketh deeply when people come bang up against the realities of depletion and climate change. And one of the things that so insidious about the painfulness of this encounter is that a lot of times, people who are ordinarily more critical in their responses, go to the worst possible scenarios with a kind of horrified fascination.
This is not totally unreasonable – not only is there tremendous social pressure to go to the apocalyptic (plenty of movies, lots of tv, fiction…) but the destruction of one’s expectations about the future can be so devastating it is hard to see any kind of positive outcome. But the problem with this is twofold. First of all, it is hard to do anything but feel irrelevant and lost. And while all of us are entitled to a few nights of margaritas and ben and jerry’s as we mourn the fall of our future, that’s not a great long term strategy. The second is that I think we tend to go from one end of the spectrum to the other so fast that we miss the possibility that there is some space in the middle to rest upon.
Now Zuska is asking herself, quite reasonably, whether I am a nut job, and while the answer to that may well be yes, I don’t think I am on the grounds that she advanced. In fact, I’m going to say something that may get me in trouble with her – I think her panic is leading her to go into places she doesn’t normally go. This is totally understandable, but I do think that her assumptions are ones that she wouldn’t normally make. In fact, later on, I’m going to go so far as to say she’s picking the patriarchal guy option by going straight to the Mad Max scenarios. I hope I can say that without them being fighting words . My own observation of my mistakes is that when I go instinctively for the option that seems antithetical to my basic general worldview, it is often because I’ve just not got my head on straight. But maybe I am being unfair. So I will respond to Zuska’s critiques one by one here, and she can advance further, if she chooses, why I’m nuts .
Here is the substance of her criticism as I understand it.
1. Sharon is naive, part 1. If climate change and energy depletion are as bad as I say, things are going to be so awful that there’s no point in doing any of these things like cooking, gardening, learning how to keep warm without power, etc… It’ll just be unmitigated hell.
My own take on this is that this is exactly the wrong way to think about this. That in fact, the one thing we pretty much know for sure is this – that unless a sudden asteroid strike or something causes the extinction of the entire human race, the one set of skills that *will* be useful to all of us is the work of basic subsistence. We know for a fact that when societies decline and fall there are bits that happen very quickly and bits that happen very slowly, that sometimes they are violent but sometimes not so much – basically the one thing we do know is that we don’t know. But even in the worst case scenarios, those who live still need water to drink. They still need to do the laundry. They still need groceries and grow food – such as in Berlin in the picture above at the end of WWII. They still need to take care of their children and tend their animals. In fact, in many cases, they need those things worse than ever. So in the midst of war, you see people out in the fields and the gardens growing food. In the midst of disaster, you see people go out to fetch water and teaching their children. As the bombs are falling or as things are going to hell, someone still has to wash the clothes and tend the sick. Indeed, those things – the ability to stretch the food and boil water for safety and keep sick people warm and comfortable stop being trivial and become matters of life and death. You don’t have to believe in happy endings to see the merits of subsistence work.
Do I believe in the worst case scenarios? What I honestly believe most in is in the fact that never in all of history has there been a universal experience of anything. In every horrible situation there have been those who say “oh, that wasn’t that bad for us” and those who die early in terrible suffering, even though it wasn’t that bad overall. I have no doubt that the range of experiences will cover the ground from “mostly unaffected” to “utterly disastrous.” I also have no idea to tell who will be who. So the best I can do is to suggest that everyone prepare to be poor, to have no electricity, to have to feed yourself, to have to take care of others – and to count on the fact that your subsistence labor will matter. It matters today if your gardening just helps you put some more of your food budget to something that matters to you like helping Haitian earthquake victims and it matters tomorrow if it is life or death.
2. Sharon is naive, part II – Sharon is a fluffy bunny-hugger who doesn’t realize that mean people with guns will come and take her garden. She and her friends will be happily hugging their bunnies and be shot or something.
I hate to say this, Zuska, but I think you are making a common judgement mistake people make about women – you are assuming that because I spend a lot of time talking food and laundry that I am a pushover. Now I admit, I am a bunny hugger – I really like my bunnies. Of course, I also got some of them because I plan to breed cute little babies so that I can chop off their heads and use them for food for my neighbors and my dogs. I just had a great girl weekend, where we talked about food and sex and played with the cute animals- and got demos about how to slaughter them.
I’m a farmer. Guns are a basic tool of my trade (sooner or later you’ll have to put livestock down) and between the deer hunters and the farmers out here, there are about as many weapons as your average army base in my neighborhood. Now what I do feel strongly about is that guns aren’t the only answer – and that there are a lot of places to before you get to the guns. There are a lot of passive security measures, and community responses that you start with. Sometimes guns aren’t a good answer at all – for example, when the people you are dealing with are state sponsored and legitimized – then shooting at them is really, really stupid and non-violent resistance is definitely the way to go. And some of my readers are pacifists (not me), and they believe strongly in dying rather than fighting back – I find that incredibly honorable and I admire them. I’m not, but I don’t think that choosing not to fight is a weak or naive response – it can be incredibly powerful.
I think there are a lot of different ways people prepare to deal with security issues. In my own case, I’ve made my life pretty much an open book. Everyone in the free world who has ever read my blog knows that I store food, for example. So my only choice is to work with my neighbors – and to know and trust me, and to think not just in terms of myself but of them in all of my planning – including my planning for dealing with disruptions of all kinds.
#3 - Sharon and her commenters are reverse snobs abotu how little energy they use.
This one annoyed me a little, although I think part of it is a fair cop. Let me distinguish here – the post Zuska seemed to be referring to here when she talked about my commenters competing for how little energy they use was “How Not to Freeze” and the thing that did annoy me in her comment about this is that if you look at the comments carefully, you’ll see that a lot of the people who are talking about how to do this are talking from direct, current experience. That is, they are living in their vehicles in the winter, or they are living or have lived through extended power outages in the cold, or they are very poor and can’t afford to heat much of their house. Those comments, that looked to Zuska like a bunch of people cheerleading themselves for this look different to me. Some portion of them look like very low income people, in a society that makes poor people feel like shit for being poor, saying “I know how to do this. I’m doing job of staying ok in a really hard situation, and I can help someone else, and yes, maybe take some pride in my very hard earned knowledge.” And this is where I get a little pissy – because where the fuck else do people who are homeless, or desperately poor get to say “here’s how you can do ok.” and get some decent respect for it? IMHO, those folks can brag all they want, and there’s just no whining about that allowed.
That said, however, that may not be a fair comment. Some of the posters in that thread, and me, are people who are trying to use fewer resources, and while I think there’s a real case to be made for people getting a place to brag a little about doing something that a. desperately needs doing and b. that our society gives you absolutely no credit and a lot of shit for, I can see how it looks different to someone else. There is a measure of reverse snobbism in any exercise that tries to normalize, or even make cool something totally uncool, and I can see how it would be annoying. I’m not going to stop, but I can see it.
But finally, here’s my big overarching critique of what her Zuskaship is saying – I think that going straight for the apocalyptic scenario is actually going straight towards affirming the assumptions of patriarchy. Because the idea that there is nothing but Mad Max and techno-perfection is precisely the narrative that we are being sold. That said, I don’t deny the possibility that you or I may end up in a really nasty situation – but the idea that we should not prepare for the day to day, not act to find a middle ground strikes me as one of the most destructive possible reasonings – and also, works always to further the status quo. Because who in their right mind would choose the apocalypse?
I could argue this one out myself, but I’m not going to – I haven’t run this quote from _The Subsistence Perspective_ in a while, and I think it is worth re-visiting. It is by Maria Mies, a feminist ecologist (who also co-authored _EcoFeminism_ with Vandana Shiva_ in her book, written with Veronika Bennholt-Thomsen about the problem of finding a way between industrial capitalism and industrial socialism, a middle ground between disaster and more ‘progress.’ The language is a little 1980s feminist-essentialist, partly because that’s when it is from, and partly because the translation from the German is a little stiff. But I think it makes the case pretty clearly. Mies writes about being the token woman and feminist on a panel full of famous male scientists talking about their apocalyptic visions of the future. It is a long passage, but I think worth quoting entirely.
em>At the end of the symposium there was a panel discussion. The speakers had been asked to present their own perspective on the future and one by one the learned professors painted an absolutely bleak picture. I looked at the audience: all young people with worried faces. They had come on this Sunday morning to get some orientation from these speakers for their own future. But they only painted an apocalyptic picture of hopelessness. The gist of tehir presentations was that there was no alternative that we could do nothing.
I said, “Please don’t forget where we are. We are in Trier, in the midst of the ruins of what once was one of the capitals of the Roman Empire. An empire whose collapse people then thought would mean the end of the world. But the world did not come to an end with the end of Rome. The plough of my father, a peasant in the Eifel, used to hit stones of the Roman road that connected Trier with Cologne. On this road where the Roman legions had marched, grass grew, and now we grew our potatoes on that road. I wanted to say that even the collapse of big empires does not mean teh end fo teh world; rather that people then begin to understand what is important, namely, our subsistence.
This was too much for [keynote speaker] Professor Weizenbaum. Angrily, he turned to me and said it was the utmost naivety to believe that after the catastrophes that were imminent even a single blad of grass would still grow. It was irresponsible to think that life would simply go on. ‘No, the only thing necessary now is to realize that there is just one big black hole in front of us. After that, there is nothing, no hope.” …
…Josef Weizenbaum is one of those prominent male scientists, who, at the end of their lives, are horrified when they look at themselves and their works and when they realize that the God to whom they have devoted their whole lives – progress – is a Moloch who eats his children. Some of these men convert then from a Saul to a Paul. But rarely do they give up the whole megalomania of the project of modern science. If they can’t solve humanity’s problems by technology then at least he catastrophe has to be total and all-encompassing. Not even a single blade of grass is allowed to grow on the ruins of their deeds….Anyone who in the face of usch an apocalyptic scenario, still talks of life, potatoes, subsistence, hope, future, perspective, must be attacked as an enemy. Mania of omnipotence and of impotence are two sides of the same coin.
The image of my father behind the plough on the old Roman road stands for another philosophy, another logic. It is neither expressed in the slogan that ‘life will go on by itself; (nature will regenerate, grass will grow) nor by thee attitude that we can control nature and repair all damage done by our master technology. The difference between subsistence orientation and omnipotence mania is the understanding that life neither simply regenerates itself, nor is it an invention of engineers, rather we, as natural beings, have to cooperate with nature if we want life to continue.”
Finding that space between apocalypse and “solutions” isn’t easy, and I don’t blame anyone for not seeing it immediately. I didn’t myself. But it is a real and present thing. I know this because I know people who have lived in that complex space – the world is full of them, but I will mention two, from my husband’s family.
The first was my husband’s grandmother, Inge, who at 12 was put upon the kindertransport and taken out of Germany. When she told me stories of that time, her time in England, she said she knew her father was already ill in the Berlin ghetto, that her parents were going hungry, perhaps starving. In fact, her father did die of hunger and disease. And she said she used to wonder, when she got to England, how she could eat, when her mother and father might be starving. But she did. And later, when she had babies to feed herself, she set herself simply to ensuring that they would not ever go hungry themselves. In that task, she could in some measure address the impossibility of helping her father.
The second was my husband’s great-grandfather Ali – not biologically, but he later married Inge’s mother (who survived and escaped after the death of her husband). Ali had a farm on the Danish border, and he told Eric when Eric was a young teenager that he used his farm to smuggle food to other Jews in the nearby towns, where there was little food for them. And he also used the farm to hide other Jews, and at night, he would help them cross the border into Denmark. He and his wife and children and the rest of his family stayed on the farm because of what they could do, feeling sure that they would have enough time to cross the border themselves if the Nazis came for them.
But they didn’t. One day the Nazis came and took his wife and children and the rest of his family away. And later, returning to his house, they caught him, and beat Ali and threw him in a truck to be taken to a concentration camp. He was lucky – as lucky as a man who loses his whole family can be – he was able to leap out of the truck in the woods, hide from the soldiers and slip over the border into Denmark. He lived, and married again, and got a daughter and a son-in-law, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren from it. And when Inge told me this story, she told me about how they learned to garden from Ali – because he grew a little garden every year until she and her husband took over, and that he always grew vegetables, because none of his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren would go hungry.
It is the survivor’s problem – the problem of subsistence. It is always easier to decide that we are all doomed, that there is no point, that there can be no point at which you say “ok, now we go on again.” But that only happens if you don’t survive, and the reality is that people do survive – they have survived terrifying and terrible things in the past, and some will survive all that comes in the coming decades. All you can do is do what you can to make it better. All that you can be sure of, in the end is that the work of subsistence will go on.