I’ve had a number of emails recently, as I’ve written here, at The Chatelaine’s Keys (Yes, I know the site is down – there was a billing mixup that required a fax to fix – we don’t have one at home and we got a foot and a half of snow on Friday, too much to bother struggling out for. The blog will be back soon, now that Eric is at work where faxes are more prevalent than out here on the farm.) and on facebook about the process of preparing to foster and eventually hopefully adopt more children that asked what this had to do with peak energy and climate change.
I’m a little reluctant to write too much about this before I’ve had the kids for, say, a decade. It is easy to write much about what you don’t really know. So please take it as a given that I am, in some measure, speaking of theory rather than practice. I have been privileged to hear the stories of other people who have actually done the work that I anticipate doing, and I would not presume to compare my knowledge or experience to theirs. At the same time, it is a part and parcel of what I’m doing – at some basic level anyone who is honest about the implications of our environmental and economic crisis must acknowledge that we are likely to see, as Joseph Tainter has shown in his critically important work, a shift from more complex institutional structures to simpler ones.
This has profound implications for families and households – over the last decades, families have gotten complicated. I’m not referring primarily to the “new modern socially complicated family” with its in-laws and out-laws, exes and ghosts of the past, and living reminders of it and the future. In some ways that is truly different – in only a few societies in history could gay and lesbian people form a family, for example. But the differences simply aren’t as great as they might seem. I should also obviously add my standard caveat whenever I write about family – that family includes both biological and chosen families. In fact, again, that was always true, and still is.
Consider a family of the 18th century England. The odds that it was a truly nuclear model – or even an extended nuclear family were pretty poor. With high mortality rates from illness and childbearing, nearly half of all children lived with someone who wasn’t a parent due to remarriage. In some cases, it wasn’t that unusual to bury several wives or husbands and recombine families. Consider George Washington who married a widow and raised her children. Consider all those novels about orphans sent to live with distance relatives, or the perception of “wicked” step-parents struggling with children not theirs by biology. Now add an unrelated servant or two, if you were affluent, or an unmarried relative or two if not, the occasional orphan, and you have families fully as complex as the ones that are pictured on tv in shows like Modern Family.
Consider our own more recent history – somehow a combination of television and family have convinced us that there was an era of nuclear family wholeness – and it is true that the 1950s stick out as a decade of unusual small family cohesion, in which a new experiment, the suburban nuclear family was invented. We all know that in many ways this failed, of course, but we still tend to look at the 1950s as a period that established an ideal norm. But of course, that’s not necessarily true. The divorce rate, which skyrocketed during the 1940s as people married too fast for war reasons, and in which traumatized men came back from the war unable to settle in, never did decline to pre-WWII levels. Neither did levels of women working outside the home.
No, when I speak of complicated families, I mean the complications of fossil fueled industrial capitalism – peak oil activists have done a really good job of showing the degree to which oil underlies the economy, and is the background of many of the basic assumptions of our lives. We have done less work on the ways that family and household structures have been shaped by oil – just as cheap energy remade our landscape and created suburbia and car culture, it created our household landscape and our assumptions about how families could and should work.
Consider two assumptions – first, that women with young children can and should be employed in the formal economy and away from home (if they choose for a certain privileged class, whether they like it or not for many). Underlying this assumption, which has many good and positive benefits, is an enormous amount of energy. This includes the manufacturing energy that makes infant formula and high-test breast pumps that allow working women to be physically distant from children under two, and the ubiquity of home refrigeration which supports that. Consider the school buses and heated and cooled large regional schools that reduce transportation burdens, and the organized activities that enable parents of school aged children not to be home during much of the day. Consider the high energy jobs that support the modern presumptions of schooling.
Next, consider the assumption, basic to our present society, that your elderly parents when they begin to get older and cease working will not live with you. What underlies that? Well, first of all heavy participation in the stock market and industrial investment system – because we realize that few people will actually save enough or receive enough societal support to live comfortably on their own, we presume and in some cases force universal investment. What about the senior assisted living homes, the nursing homes the apartments and complexes that enable independent, semi-independent and dependent living away from home with limited visiting? What about the Medicare system that ensures you (hopefully) don’t have to pay for Grandma’s arthritis medicine, and the car that allows her to retain her independence for years longer than if she had to walk everywhere?
This is not a judgement on those systems, but it is important to remember that families have been transformed into fairly complicated systems by industrial fossil fuels – that those systems are both implicated in our problem (ie, you burn just as much carbon in a good use, going to visit Grandma and Grandpa as you do on your way to, say, a strip club – in fact in many cases our particular Grandmas and Grandpas are far more distant than the nearest strip club), and also vulnerable to them (funds to pay for assisted living depend on the value of housing and stock market assets which in turn depend on energy markets, etc…) It is fair to say that the level of familial complexity, at least of the energy sort, is likely to decline with other kinds of complexity, and that that is likely to make your family more socially complicated. That is, if Grandma can’t stay at the assisted living place any more because she has no more money, odds are good she’s going to either go to already overburdened state resources, or home to you. If you have to nurse your child in situ every time they need to eat, and if your local school district has no money for activities or busing, someone in the family isn’t going to be able to have a full-time job. This is the reality.
As families get less complex in the industrial sense, they get more complex in the social sense. Grown kids come home to live with Mom and Dad, who at least (we hope) may have a paid off house. Families fracture under marital stresses, and recombine again. Health declines under lowered access, and family members step in to cover care. More and more of the burdens that have been spread over insitutional, energy and other resources get returned to the family.
The family, at least if it is anything like mine, is probably not wholly ready for this, and under considerable strains. Besides the strains of job loss and pinched budgets, of becoming extended family after being nuclear, there’s the strain of finding ways to remake yourself and your notion about what is supposed to happen. For example, millions of younger people are now living with their parents in a society that is accustomed to seeing living with Mom and Dad as a sign of immaturity or failure. Remaking this mental image is an ongoing and sometimes stressful project. In a recession that has heavily hit men, millions of unemployed fathers are now home with the kids, in charge of domestic labor in a society that sees economic contributions from father as the most meaningful thing they can do. This is not easy to deal with.
Moreover, one of the things we are likely to find is that there aren’t enough biological families to go around. I hear over and over from older people without children concerns about how they will manage when they get older in an increasingly complex world where many assumptions are changed. The most vulnerable people in our society – the elderly, children in unstable families and the disabled are likely to find that as more and more people are cast back on the simple structure of family, that it gets harder to find enough family to go around. Who cares for the elderly aunt and uncle whose only daughter lives a continent away, or who never had children? Who cares for the mentally ill second cousin whose own parents are too frail to do it? Who supports the unrelated individuals that are part of your community and cannot stand the strain? The answer is everyone who can – or people suffer and fall through the cracks.
As social support networks fail and systems fail, it becomes more and more important that we expand our community sense of responsibility to take up the slack where it is most evident. There will be people who are not covered, families that cannot step up, that are destroyed by increasing stresses, there will be losses that have no one to bear them, people who can’t give anything. Stepping up and reconstituting your family is part of the collective project of any of us who have extra resources to share.
That doesn’t mean your choices will look like mine – perhaps you will open your table, but not your whole home to the teenage daughter of a friend who has no job and needs support. Perhaps you will shore up the local social support networks for the disabled or elderly. Perhaps you will take in that aunt or the neighbor, or combine resources with another single Mom. Perhaps your brother in law will make an extended stay on your couch. Perhaps you’ll offer some odd work and a couch to sleep on to a community member made temporarily homeless, or perhaps you will work to keep the shelter open in an era of declining donations. Perhaps you can aid a refugee family or provide support to economic victims. Perhaps like us, you might adopt or foster a child, or you adopt a family friend as an honorary grandparent, or open up your home to friends who are couch surfing. There are a lot of possibilities, both in the expansion and “simplifying” of families and also in the extension and redefinition of family into the larger world.
So this is what we can do – we can begin the process of reconstituting our families to the economic, environmental and social realities that we actually face. We can look at our home and see space and time and energy and love for a couple more children whose families have not been able to catch them in any kind of safety net, or perhaps for an adult with no one to turn to.. We can recognize that there have always been some casualties of our society and that there will be more and more of them, and that we individually can’t provide perfect support for all of them. But that we can do our part, the part we both want and need to do, and can move from one complexity to another, from industrial complexity to the new, complicated family.
The good thing about this, is that socially complicated families are all alike in one particular way – I know this because I am the child of one. Happy families are all alike – but complicated (as opposed to unhappy) families are also similar in some important ways – among them their innate resilience and adaptability. My parents divorced, my mother is gay, my family includes children of biology and adoption, of marriage and partnership, chosen and biological family. I have a whole host of relatives for which English has no word – what do you call your lesbian step-mother’s first cousin who stands roughly in the role of aunt to you, but has an adopted child from Vietnam the same age as your kid? Well, we go with “aunt” and “niece” for her daughter, fairly generationally accurate names that make little sense, but work. We have already done the work of re-defining family and how it works at least once – we can draw on that as we rebuild again in new ways.
Such families tend to be thought of as in many ways a bad thing, held up against more stable, more nuclear families as an ideal. In some ways, this may be true – my husband and I, both children of divorce when quite young, know that our children feel a security and stability we never felt. There are gifts, however, to the complicated family – one becomes accustomed to making places for new people. There is an emergent flexibility, an attentiveness to making sure everyone is recognized and included. Such things are almost instinctive, and rarely full articulated. You get a big, moveable, constantly shifting family that can be difficult to navigate – or deeply enriching. And there are lots of people to share burdens – to spread out the weight of change, to share the process of reconstituting identity with.
We are going to find ourselves losing industrial complexity – poorer, closer to home, less freedom to roam, more stress. We are also going to find ourselves gaining social complexity as we reach out and spread our wings over people who might have been “out-laws” in the old nuclear model, and now are brought in. The only hope we have in order to protect the most vulnerable people is to open up our understanding of family, and to bring in those in danger of being left out. That doesn’t mean abandoning all hope of social supports, but it means as we work to shore up the social safety networks to also reinforce and open up the base supports – our families.
I can understand why my current obsession with cleaning my house for homestudies and pulling together bunk beds might look like it isn’t about peak oil and climate change. In the most basic way, however, it seems to me entirely contiguous – I’ve always known my work on preparation won’t help everyone, but maybe if I help a few people and they help a few more, you can reach out enough to make a difference. I don’t wish to press anyone to do things they aren’t ready for or don’t want to, but the world is awash already with people in need, and will only be more so – I am adding children to my family because i want them, and also in the hopes that maybe if I open my doors a little more, someone else will look around them and see a door they might open too.