I had been mulling over precisely how to frame this piece for a while, when I read Erik Lindberg’s “This Is a Peak Oil Story.” which admirably gets at the essential point that I’ve been wanting to make – that our collective crisis comes to all of us at different times and different ways than we imagined, and that exemptions are only rarely granted. Lindberg writes eloquently of his own experience of trying to undertake change – and failing in large part because of the precise circumstances he is trying to address:
I had imagined the rooftop farm thriving far into the future. Here, my children would some day learn the wonders of the ecological cycle of soil, to seed, to plate, and then (with the composting) back to soil again. We would be increasingly able to feed ourselves and our community from it. It would be a buffer in an age of decline, a model for bewildered neighbors as they experience the first spasms of contraction. It never occurred to me that the farm itself might be a victim of this decline. This was to be a Milwaukee landmark, I perhaps presumptuously assumed, an enduring symbol of Transition Milwaukee’s earliest days
The investment I would need to keep the building is remarkably small. But try as I have, I am finding only closed doors and dried-up wells. An obstacle such as this, I have been trained to believe, would be but a simple matter. I have breezed by larger ones in the past. Ingenuity, creativity, “thinking outside the box,” not to mention a burst of effort, would certainly shake loose a solution. Maybe it still will. But in the meantime, as the farm slips further from my grasp, I am flabbergasted and astounded, unused to this new loss of control.
The realization has slowly dawned on me the past few days: so this is what life after the peak is like. This is life with limits. Both the symbol of and material source of my family’s personal transition will be gone, taken away by the events we thought we were preparing for. What, I wonder, will The Transition Movement be like as the limits of peak oil and other resource depletion begin to descend more fully upon us, difficult enough to accept and anticipate, impossible, perhaps, to truly imagine in all their dumb blunt force.
What I found eloquent and right about Lindberg’s story is simply that it mirrors my own direct experience and the experience of people and organizations I know – that we who are preparing and doing good work are in some measure not expecting the realities into which we plunge. We speak, as Lindberg points out of “after peak oil” or “when climate change really hits” the way children do of “when we grow up” even though these things have already struck us. We are, in many ways, already living the grand sweep of adventure that we sometimes imagine will come “someday.” Someday, in fact, is here.
In fact, they began to strike a long time ago – the world has been warming my whole life. Since 1979 when real wages began to drop, America has gotten less equitable and standards of living have fallen. The 1970s oil shocks too place while I sat in a carseat in line for gas with my parents before I turned two. I have literally lived with these realities my entire life, and so have a vast number of you – and yet we are still surprised and shocked by some of the realities. Or at least I am. That is what my “Anyway Project” has been about – bringing what I have done into line with what is.
It isn’t just me, or Lindberg, though. Nearly all the major organizations dealing with peak oil and climate change have gone through recent difficulties. Some experience intellectual challenges of their basic premises, or reduced ability to raised funds, or a public perception that it just isn’t on the agenda anymore. Individuals working on solutions find themselves caught up with lost work and high prices and are struggling with the fact that the organizations they work with are often concentrating on repairing a world that will emerge sometime in the future – with nothing to offer the present victims of the circumstances they are preparing for.
Like most of us, I know this and I don’t. I sit on the board of ASPO-USA, with five other people who know a lot about energy depletion and its implications. And yet, we are all of us in some way viscerally surprised when funds dry up from donations and we struggle to keep the budget going. After all, this is important work! If there is money for anything, there should be for this, right? And there probably is if we just work harder and spend more time at it – but of course more time on money is less time on energy, right? I know from friends who sit on the boards of other organizations that the same struggles are played out everywhere, and that the same vague sense that “oh, wait, we’re supposed to have more time” is prevalent everywhere. We knew it would come – but why aren’t we ready as an organization? The people and organizations that articulate best what is to come may have a blind spot when it comes to themselves. What’s our plan for the drying up of funds and resources?
Of course, that’s a common thing. One of the joys of teaching Adapting-in-place for the last few years has been getting to see the inside of many people’s lives and thinking about this. What I’ve learned is that we all make errors – every single one of us. We expect everything to fall apart last Thursday or we assume our job will be exempt. We believe that events will wait until we can afford that house, get our daughter out of college, finish our degree – or we think there’s no point in starting because there’s no time. Everyone has a vision, everyone is committed in some measure to it, everyone is in error in some way.
Including me. Years ago I began warning people that everyone will have individual experiences of the coming events that are different. Years ago I argued we should start speaking in the present tense about events, that we could no longer talk about “when climate change and energy depletion happen” (I wrote _Depletion and Abundance_ in 2006-7 and made precisely these arguments.) I have argued that the long view of history is important – it can allow you to see the overall picture of events, but that it is important to remember that individual experiences of major events vary hugely. In every crisis there is the early victim, the person who responded to the invasion of Rome with a “What are those guys on horseback….arrrrrrrrr!” and the person who saw the story through from childhood to old age. In every crisis there are people insulated from most of the disaster, who are literally unable to imagine what the world looks like to those in the thick of it. Read, for example, Stud Terkel’s _Hard Times_ and Jeane Westin’s _Making Do: How Women Survived the ’30s_ to get a good look at the range of possible perceptions and experiences that existed in some cases in close physical proximity. I know those things, of course, and yet I forget them at times.
Those of us who write about the potential historical and social implications of our societal shift to lowered resource access and a warmer planet draw on historical narratives to guide us – we can look at how large stories full of individual narratives look from a long vantagepoint, and draw a series of lessons from them. It would be easy to forget in our focus on the overall experience, however, how many individual experiences, wide and terrible, good and bad, will make up the long view, and how history elides personal experience in some measure, or takes a few personal experiences to signify the vast whole.
What Lindberg is writing about is a universal experience, as far as I can tell – the banging up of imagined future histories and projections against the world of real people and real lives. I’m grateful that he’s telling that story, telling one story and starting it here, and now, providing critique of narratives that focus on the future. Moreover, his is a reminder of something absolutely critical to any organization that attempts to address peak oil and climate change – simply speaking, they are happening now.
I argued some years ago in an essay about organizations in general that organizations that strive to protect communities against peak oil and climate change that have no response to the early victims, the people already living our joint future will fail – because they will seem irrelevant. Most of us have not fully grasped this point – indeed, I fully acknowledge that my own preparations haven’t always. It is, however, fundamentally true – that the strategies we use now, in the early part of our crisis, must capture as many people being swept away by events as possible, must respond not just to the terrible disasters that may well be part of our future but to the disasters that are occurring today. We must find ways to live within the formal economy right now, even as we strengthen the informal economy for the day when there is nothing there. We must find a way to feed, support, fund raise, insulate, educate, protect, build and tend people and infrastructure today, right now, just as we prepare for a long view in which many of those things fall apart much more rapidly than at present.
In many ways this is a much harder project than the already very difficult project that most peak oil thinkers and organizations have put together – we were able, with some difficulty to imagine our future. That’s hard enough in a society that offers no middle ground between apocalypse and technological utopia. With more difficulty, some of us pulled together a series of possible responses to that imagined future. Now comes the tricky part (yup, that was the easy part!) – adapting not just to what we believe will come but to what is, and being able to shift our adaptations as events unfold. This is tricky for organizations, this is tricky for human lives, and frankly, sometimes we’ll fail.
Moreover, we live in a world where failure is viewed as a personal thing – as much as every one of us recognizes that we will be swept along by events, in some measure our talk of “after” is a bow of submission to the larger narrative that we are primarily personally responsible for our circumstances. I don’t know Lindberg personally at all, but I would suspect that along with his narrative that this is a peak oil story – and it is – there is an inner part of him that thinks “I failed, if I were better and smarter and worked harder i would have done it right and it is really about me…other people seem to be doing ok.”
How would I dare to write that about another person I know only through his writings? Because I too live in a head with those narratives floating through, and I suspect most of you do as well. We live in a society that stigmatizes precisely the events that most of us are going to go through.
What’s the answer? In some measure it is accepting that our personal or collective visions for events may be wrong. In some measure it is recognizing that we have to be the ones to step forward and say “the disaster is now, it is just smaller than it will be.” In some measure we have to provide the reality check to both the hopes and fears of others and to ourselves. Most of all we have to remember this – the sweep of history is one thing. Our lives and our work are another. Our strategies must respond not just to large and sweeping narratives but to bumpy, messy, uncomfortable things, the kind of adventures that Bilbo the Hobbit called “nasty, messy things that make you late for dinner.” We must prioritize the strategies and resources that work when things go as planned, and when things don’t – that serve people now and later. We must do the hard work of adapting our best laid plans to circumstances.