For those who have begun planning for a low-energy future, the main concerns are rightly food, transportation, heat, health care and local production of goods of all kinds. On a recent trip to Chicago, however, I began thinking about the fate of our great artistic and cultural institutions. In the spirit of the oft-quoted Biblical saying, “Man does not live by bread alone,” I wondered whether anyone will conclude that Chicago’s world-renown Joffrey Ballet is worth saving as energy supplies become more and more scarce.
Chicagoans of all types nearly filled the auditorium for a recent performance of The Nutcracker which I attended. I found the performance intensely beautiful and occasionally (and intentionally) delightfully amusing. It involved not only the professional Joffrey dancers but also young singers and dancers from the Chicago community. Can we do without such unifying community events? Can we live by bread alone?
Everyone who thinks seriously about a post-peak world will probably agree that the arts need to be an integral part of that world. Yet, we know only too well how easily they are neglected in our current world even though we have been rich in energy for a long time. How much more might the arts be slighted in an energy-deprived world!
While in Chicago I also visited the Shedd Aquarium and wondered how such a place might function in a post-peak world. Both the Art Institute of Chicago and the nearby Field Museum of Natural History seemed much more likely to remain viable since their exhibits are largely static and, of course, inanimate. The Shedd Aquarium, on the other hand, must continuously filter 3 million gallons of water, hold the temperature of that water as low as 38 degrees (for the penguins) and feed an entire underwater zoo of animals daily. The aquarium seems certain to be shuttered even under the most mild assumptions of a post-peak world. Perhaps marking it as an inevitable casualty would allow us to go in search of less energy-intensive ways to teach the public and especially our children about the natural world which lies beneath the sea.
At the other extreme, a local jazz singer I listened to in a hotel bar and a one-man show on the life of George Gershwin both seemed much more likely to survive a peak than any of the other forms of entertainment or cultural attractions I saw. The relatively low energy content of these two performances seem to favor them in an energy-challenged future.
Still, should we close down the more energy-intensive Joffrey Ballet in a post-peak oil world? Should we let all the great theater, opera and ballet companies in the world go defunct? Should we close the museums and aquariums? Should we shutter the world’s symphony orchestras? And, what about our libraries? Will we allow these great storehouses of cultural memory and knowledge to fall into disrepair and disuse?
No doubt popular entertainments will survive, kept alive by small groups in every community. And, arts and crafts are likely to flourish in a world where household objects are increasingly the product of local craft work. Folk knowledge will become an important part of our education again. But what about knowledge of the remarkable scientific and cultural achievements of the fossil fuel age? Will that knowledge be lost?
Without planning, decisions about the great artistic, cultural and scientific institutions of our society may end up being afterthoughts. Under the cloud of an emergency we could lose many of the most important parts of our heritage. And, should that happen, we would surely end up testing whether man can live by bread alone.