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Peak Oil Advice from German Poets

Fairly often, during the three years or so since these essays first started trying to map out the topography of the deindustrial future ahead of us, people have responded with a straightforward question: what do you think we should do about it? Even when it’s posed rhetorically, as it so often is, this question strikes me as a good sign.

It’s one thing, after all, to treat the twilight of the industrial age as an abstract possibility, or a dumping ground for Utopian or apocalyptic fantasies, as so often happens these days. It’s quite another to grapple with it as a reality that can be expected to shape the rest of our lives. Those who make the subtle transition from one to the other tolerably often find themselves confronted with some form of the same message the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke received from the statue of Apollo: Du musst dein Leben aendern, “you must change your life.”

Still, figuring out exactly what sort of change is needed is a more complex matter. As often as not the people who ask for my suggestions are at that second stage of the process, sure that they have to take action but far from sure what they ought to do. Last week’s Archdruid Report fielded a question from a reader who has reached that point in his confrontation with the future looming up before us. To judge by the recent contents of my inbox, it’s a fairly common place to be just now, and this week’s essay will try to respond to it, not just for the people who asked it directly, but also for others who may be facing the same issues just now.

It’s probably necessary to make a few points to begin with. These will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog, but they remain effectively absent from our collective conversation around the future, outside a narrow slice of the peak oil movement, and thus bear repeating.

First, it’s crucial to remember that our predicament is anything but unique. The fantasy that today’s industrial societies are destiny’s darlings, and therefore exempt from the common fate of civilizations, needs to be set aside; so does the equally misleading fantasy that today’s industrial societies is the worst of all possible worlds and are getting the cataclysmic fate they deserve. The societies of the industrial world are human cultures, no better or worse than most; for a variety of reasons, they happened to stumble onto the reserves of stored carbon hidden in the Earth, and used most of them in three centuries of reckless exploitation; now, having overshot their resource base like so many other societies, their following the familiar trajectory of decline and fall. Letting go of the delusion of our own uniqueness enables us to learn from the past, and also makes it easier to set aside some of the unproductive cultural narratives that hamstring so many attempts to respond to our predicament.

Second, one of the lessons the past offers is that the fall of civilizations is a slow, uneven process. None of us are going to wake up one morning a few weeks, or months, or years from now and find ourselves living in the Dark Ages, much less the Stone Age. Thus trying to leap in a single bound to some imagined future is unlikely to work very well; rather, the most effective strategy will be a matter of muddling through, trying to deal with each stage of the descent as it comes into sight, and being prepared to make plenty of midcourse corrections. Flexibility will be more useful than ideology, and making do will be an essential survival skill.

Third, another of the lessons offered by the past is that the long road down is not going to be easy. Like every human society in every age, the future ahead of us will have opportunities for happiness and achievement, of course, and there will doubtless be significant gains to set in the balance against the inevitable losses, especially for those who long for simpler lives at a slower pace. Still, the losses will be terrible; it’s crucial not to sugar-coat them, despite the very real temptation to do so, or to ignore the immense human tragedy that is an inevitable part of the slow death of any civilization.

Fourth, the harsh dimensions of the future can be mitigated, and the positive aspects fostered, by preparations and actions that are well within the reach of individuals, families, and communities. Not all declines and falls are created equal; in many failed civilizations of the past, a relatively small number of people willing to commit themselves to constructive action have made a huge difference in the outcome, and not only in the short term. The same option is wide open today; the one question is whether there will be those willing to take up the challenge.

Fifth, we can only guess at many of the details of the future ahead of us. Drawing up detailed plans for the future may be a source of comfort in the face of a relentlessly unpredictable future, but that same unpredictability makes any plan, no matter how clever or popular, a dubious source of guidance at best. Nor is consensus a useful guide; one further lesson of history is that in every age, the consensus view of the future is consistently wrong. Instead, the deliberate cultivation of diverse and even conflicting approaches by groups and individuals maximizes the likelihood that the broadest possible toolkit will reach the waiting hands of the future.

These points, and especially the last, make it a waste of time to offer some fixed list of steps that those who want to change their lives ought to do. (In fact, making or following such a list is one thing that those who want to change their lives may well find it better not to do.) What’s needed is not a list but a template for taking those first basic steps. Any template will do, but the one suggested here is likely as good as any.

It’s simple enough, really: learn one thing, give up one thing, save one thing.

Learn one thing. One of the greatest challenges we face collectively just now is that the skills relevant to the abstract global economy of paper wealth that has dominated the last few decades, which are also the skills that most of us have accordingly learned, will rapidly become useless in the far less abstract economy of the fairly near future. Our capacity to farm out the production of necessary goods and services to sweatshop laborers on distant continents is in the beginning stages of a drastic decline, while many of the job categories that have kept people in the industrial world employed are in the process of going away.

This does not mean that each of us will have to provide all of life’s necessities for ourselves on an individual basis. It does mean that each of us who can provide one of life’s necessities for ourselves, our family, our neighbors, and our community will have a highly marketable skill in the local economies of the deindustrializing future. Getting some such skill is thus the first critical step in your personal transition to that future. It probably has to be said that this doesn’t mean reading a few books on such a skill; it means providing yourself with tools and materials and getting to work here and now, growing vegetables, making soap, raising chickens, brewing beer, or doing whatever else it is that you decide to learn how to do, until you can do it well enough, and reliably enough, that your neighbors are willing to barter whatever it is that they know how to do for a share of your produce. Whatever you learn, learn it inside and out; in ten years you may be depending on your knowledge for survival.

Give up one thing. Unless you’re a rare bird indeed, many of the things that make up your lifestyle right now are only there because a baroquely complex industrial system fueled with unimaginable amounts of nonrenewable energy makes them available to you. Unless you can come up with alternative sources that lack that dependence, all of them will go away at some point in the future. Choose one of those things, get rid of it now, and make the necessary changes in the rest of your life so that you can function gracefully without it.

It can certainly be something big – I know a growing number of people who have gotten rid of their cars, for example – but it doesn’t have to be. Whatever the scale, though, choose something that will take some effort and planning to give up, but also something with an immediate payback – if you give up your car, for example, you’ll have to make other arrangements for transportation, but you’ll also find yourself with hundreds of unspent dollars each month from the payments you don’t have to make, the gas you don’t have to buy, and so on. Choose it, give it up, and don’t look back; every dependence on the industrial system you can abandon is a vulnerability you won’t have as that system comes apart at the seams.

Save one thing. One of the common consequences of the fall of civilizations is that cultures get shredded, and many things of value that aren’t needed for immediate survival get lost. Arts, crafts, music, literature, sciences, technologies, religious and philosophical traditions – none of them are invulnerable. When they make it through the dark age that follows the breakdown of a civilization, nearly always it’s because someone cared enough to keep them going as living traditions. Between the immense cultural legacies of our present civilization, and the extreme vulnerability of most of those legacies to the effects of decline and fall, such people will be desperately needed in the years to come.

Choosing what you will save is easier than it might seem. Sort through the cultural legacies that matter to you, then, until you can find something that satisfies two criteria: first, the idea that people in the future might have to do without it forever should be intolerable to you; second, you should be willing and able to do something significant to keep that from happening. What you do will depend on what you’re trying to save; the steps you’ll need to take to help keep amateur radio going will not be the same as those you’ll need to help preserve the Appalachian dulcimer and its distinctive music for the long term, and vice versa. Make your choice, and be ready to share what you’re doing with others who share your passion.

These are first steps, of course, and for some people they will doubtless be baby steps, though it’s by no means a given that they will always be. Any one of them done thoroughly will give you a significant advantage in facing the difficult future ahead of us. Other changes will follow in their own time, chosen willingly or imposed by events; the sooner you begin to deal with the need to embrace the necessary, to change your life, the less overwhelming the changes further on are likely to be. As another German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said: “Whatever you can do, or believe you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and magic and power in it. Begin it now.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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