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Peak Moment 159: It's the End of the World as We Know It (transcript added)

Taped in late 2005 before Peak Moment began, this conversation feels eerily prescient about the effects of the 2008 financial collapse. William Stewart reflects on the shadow side of the fossil fuel bonanza, which enabled hyper-individualism and mobility that have shredded our connections to community and place, along with increased violence and dysfunction. Likening our oil-dependent culture to an addict who must first bottom out, he suggests there may be a silken lining after collapse: the possibility of more communal and connected ways of life.

The text William reads at the end is “Handy tips on how to behave at the death of the world” by Anne Herbert, perhaps best known for her quote “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.

Download the audio for the episode here.

Transcribed by Keith Mac Cuish:

Narrator: This is peak moment. We are living at a peak of human innovation, information, wealth and health. But we are also at a peak of population and consumption with rising temperatures and declining resources fueled by cheap oil and gas. Peak moment – television bringing you examples of positive responses to energy decline and climate change through local community action.

Janaia Donaldson: I’m Janaia Donaldson and my guest today is William Stewart, a long time friend and cultural observer. We’re enjoying the warmth of the fire as it’s a late winter; rain is pattering on the skylights. We’re talking about peak oil, fossil fuels, their effect on our lives. William, in particular, you really have paid attention in a large range of how technology and other things affect our culture as a whole, but also as individuals. In particular, I’m interested in your observations on the sort of shadow side, the dark side, the underside of fossil fuels; of oil. Tell us about that.

WS: Well, it’s interesting because so much of what Richard Heinberg speaks about is how we hit the energy jackpot in discovering fossil fuels and how to utilize them as a source of energy. Perhaps unlocking the safety deposit box might be a better metaphor since it’s a onetime deposit there that we have been drawing on but will not be able to draw on in the future. And indeed, that has given all kinds of benefits that we all know about, but there is a shadow side to it. I think we underestimate the role of technology and specifically fuel driven technology, which most of our technology is, in creating a whole complex of psychological and spiritual malaise that pervades our culture. We have higher than ever rates of depression, suicide, violence and spousal abuse and on and on and on. I think that the chain that leads to that is the abundance of fossil fuels leads to both a speeding up of culture and also an increase in numbers, sheer numbers of people that can be supported by the food technologies and the transportation technologies and so on. So we live ever more in a sense of mass culture. Our sense of space is ever more crowded out. We live ever more in little boxes with automobiles, television sets, and computers. There all these confining little spaces.

JD: The transportation, I’m going back to that, there’s also that transportation allowing us a mobility we didn’t use to have – it partly has shattered families; we can all live on different parts of the coast and just telephone each other and visit now and then.

WS: Or not.

JD: Or not. So that social web extends that sense of personal isolation – each of us as separate units.

WS: In places that become ever more interchangeable the notion of a local culture that is dependent on and conditioned by the physical environment, the nature of what grows there, the nature of the people and their ethnic backgrounds what have you, all of that is a homogenization. You fly into any airport in the world, I recently went to Istanbul and it was so striking going into the airport it could have been anywhere, anywhere in the world and there is a kind of cultural leveling which makes people lose a sense of connectedness to any specific place and you think about the patterns of most working people in America , they change jobs every two years or whatever the statistic is and if ‘oh you need to go to Dallas, ok I’ll move to Dallas; you need to go to Atlanta, ok I’ll move to Atlanta.’ So that is another contributing factor that is made possible by this oil glut that does not serve us well psychologically because we lose sense of rootedness and connection and feel very, very alone. It fosters the hyper-individuality of the culture: me first – it’s my fate is what matter. The notion of caring about a community that you were born into and in whose arms you’ll die, we don’t have that anymore.

JD: And in that community you would have that kind of give and take that if you know you will be in the same neighbourhood for thirty, forty, fifty years, your whole life you may agree with this neighbour in this particular issue but you might have to be allies and disagree in another – you’re going to have to be in a constant relationship that will have tension in it but you know you’re going to keep relating. Our community has a huge number of retired folks that have come from, migrated from mostly I would say Bay area or Los Angeles have come here and they’re here to enjoy the leisure of their last years and there isn’t a sense of ‘we’ve grown up in this community, got to make sure to vote yes on the school bonds to keep the schools going’ and suburban values as opposed to semi-rural practices and they are different.

WS: Rural but also community based values because the notion of what you’re speaking of for better or worse, we are in this together. I think that that may be one of the gifts of the breakdowns which I see coming – the exact form I won’t predict – but I feel confident as the more I learn about the issues related to energy, the coming energy scarcity and how that interfaces with population growth, climate change, anti-biotic resistance, water shortages – which are going to be a huge issue in the coming century – that there are so many things that we are going to experience a major, major shakeup in terms of our social structures, economic structures, political structures and I think it’s going to be pretty grim. One of the gifts that ultimately may inhere in that is a re-discovery of the necessity of community in a way that oil has quote, unquote liberated us from and in the process deprived us of a very basic psychic, spiritual nurturance that used to be the birth right of every human; you lived in your village or in your tribe or group and for better or for worse with all your foibles you had your people, that was unquestioned. Now, people go to their graves with no one caring for them – it happens all the time. I think there are silken linings that will come but at a huge cost in terms of material breakdown that will be the inevitable consequence, I think, of our habits which have a very addictive nature. They are out of control; we’re in denial about them just the way the addict says, ‘oh I can manage, it’s ok I can keep it together’ and as we all know, often addicts do keep a very good front for a long time.

JD: Us addicted to this oil based life with material plenty and food from all over the world…

WS: …and the hyper-individualism that goes with that.

JD: I think of that in terms of transportation, that at any moment with a car I can pick up and go anywhere when I want to and the notion of having to change that habit to let’s say share a car, let’s say three neighbours decide to share a car in the coming times, the kind of coordination we’re going to have to do, the kind of communication we’re going to have to do to just allot – do I ride with this person on that day and she rides with me on this day, it’s a whole different accommodating of one another’s lives – those of us with private vehicles don’t have to do at this time.

WS: It’s very comparable to a dyadic marriage or quasi-marital relationship in which if you are determined to stay with it, as you were saying the other day, you have to negotiate and you get the rough edges sanded down inevitably because you are, for better or for worse committed to staying with it and of course one of the symptoms of the anomie and the culture is the huge divorce rate because ‘hey, this one isn’t working, I’m getting on a plane fueled by fossil fuels and moving to Seattle’. The notion of engaging in constant process with others in order to create a commonality that works for all of us is so alien to us. Folks like us are trying to do this, but we are flying in the teeth of, I would say, ten thousand years of socialization, certainly five hundred of socialization in terms of post-renaissance, individualism, the cult of the genius, the cult of the adventurer, the growth economy, the notion of steady state, the notion that the world cycles year after year. JD: Well, that’s not what we say. Now, we’re in a growth economy.

WS: It’s a vector world.

JD: It’s always better, upward and onward and the stock market and DOW goes higher and it’s going to be that way forever and ever and ever.

WS: Right, and where the cartoon character that is running off the ledge and is about to plummet, but we’re running on air or running on empty, however you want to look at it.

JD: I’d like to share a cartoon with you: it’s called ‘What Lemmings Believe’ and it has the cliff and it has all the little lemmings; this is what lemmings believe: the ones at the end are flying. That’s part of our denial. I think about this oil situation and particularly the question of scale is the one that challenges me. When I think about rebuilding community I am beginning to experience that here with small groups gathering together to try and look at this question, but we’re just a tiny handful and of course living in all different parts of the community so it’s not a geographical community; I mean, I’m going to have to get along with my neighbours if I want to do really local things. When I look at just the population level of our county or the world as a whole, I look at questions like re-localizing this area, the first thing I come up with is that I don’t think there is enough arable land to grow food even with all the fossil fuel inputs for fertilizer to feed the folks in our community. I think there might be this counter tension as we start on this other side as the energy decline is happening and it’s more scary and people having to look at how you allocate it, I’m looking at increased violence and social breakdown as a result of that trigger, not just the hope we’ll work towards it; of community pulling together. I can also imagine a lot of shredding or challenge…I don’t want to live with that.

WS: I absolutely agree with you. We’re talking about a complete social breakdown on a scale that has not been seen, certainly for many, many generations. The Black Plague maybe is comparable in terms of scale of impact. That’s the kind of analogy I would look to in previous human societies. The impact of the Europeans coming to the Inca civilization where it really was wham, it just…

JD: …flattened the civilization.

WS: Yes. My sense is that we will sputter along in our current way of functioning as a culture with ever more people marginalized, ever more violence, ever more gated communities, ever more us against them or me against the world, stockpiling, you know shooting the invaders and so on, but still nominally still within the framework of what we have and then at a certain point it’s the tipping point metaphor or model that at some point the whole thing will just tip over and we will enter a dark age such as none of us can imagine. I think about that and it’s really scary and it’s really…scary. Just as in personal inner work to deal with shadow stuff you have to go into it. If you try to bypass it, if you try to sidestep it…

JD: It always whacks you.

WS: It always whacks you and I think that as a culture I feel like we’re an adolescent on a binge. Global culture, childhood…

JD: Chugging oil, chug, chug, chug.

WS: Absolutely. The childhood of the human race is, you know you see in the Paleolithic for instance the cave paintings and so on, there’s clearly a sense of the community shares a consciousness, it’s not individual consciousness. The tribe or the village in later times, the consciousness is a communal consciousness. And then with agriculture and beasts of burden and kingdoms and empires and hierarchies and patriarchies, more and more individuation becomes the norm and in many ways that served us well, but we have lost that sense of community. I feel like we’re an adolescent on a binge, sort of hyper-individuating and behaving in out of control ways and at a certain point, just as in the addiction model, recovery is generally contingent on bottoming out. Similarly, we as a culture and at this point it’s a global culture, will bottom out and there will indeed be mass die off. The particulars you can’t predict, but I feel that there is a gift in there in the sense that the structures we have are so dysfunctional that there is no way to repair them. I am not opposed to attempt at repair and to try and model in the midst of this crazy world, to try to model the kind of world we want to live in, but I still think that the dark time is coming. The hope is that we will get beyond our adolescence as a civilization into a place where we somehow integrate the journey of individuation that we’ve gone on as a species over the last ten thousand years and integrate that with an older, more under layer of being a bunch of animals that sort of snuggle together for warmth and somehow the spiral will come round to a place of integration.

JD: At this time our recognition hopefully, consciously that we have to be caring for the entire planet which has been so toxified and trashed and depleted and so on that we cannot survive without taking care and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of remediation. So in our last couple of minutes…you and I were talking yesterday about Anne Herbert’s little piece about tips on how to behave at the dying of the world, at the death of the world. I think she’s got some nice wisdom. We have about two minutes.

WS: Yes, this is a piece that has been very meaningful to me and it begins:

Sometimes it comes in a dream and sometimes in one more newspaper headline. And then you know. With your cells and your past and your future you know. We are killing it all and soon it will all be dead. We are here at the death of the world – killers, witnesses, and those who will die. How then shall we live? Probably good to tell the truth as much as possible. Truth is generally appreciated by terminal patients and we all are. I mean it has been rather great. Sunsets, oceans, some art, some moments between beings, smells of fresh mornings. As we kill it all by dominance habits too huge to stop, we can thank it for the good times and say sorry by changing our own participation in the dominance stuff in some profound way. Doing this kind of change will involve confusion, embarrassment, and awareness of activities and attitudes you have not been consciousness of. Doing this kind of change will involve increased aliveness for you personally, a fine thing to bring to a dying planet.
WS: What I would say in closing is that we don’t know if it’s going to be the end of not. We can hope that we will get through it, but it doesn’t matter because we can’t know. All we can do is to live with as much consciousness as we can now in the hope that, maybe, just maybe we will get through it to the other side as a species and maybe not – it’s out of our hands – but to live as fully as we can.

JD: And to embark on that journey not knowing that end with as much love and care.

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