In Depletion and Abundance I write about the difficulty of committing to a lifestyle change in a world where you always seem to have more time, where defining events are always on the horizon but never present. I use the phrase “time to pick up your hat” which I take from a short story by Robert Heinlein, as a way of thinking both about how difficult it is to change and how necessary.
On the one hand, the story is a typical 1950s nuclear era tale of apocalypse – in it, the main character, a bartender, is dealing drinks when two scientists walk into his bar. Both are terribly, terribly worried about nuclear war, and have reason to be. They spend the afternoon exploring all the risks and dangers, and the bartender, previously unaware of how urgent the situation was, listens in horrified fascination. Finally, as the afternoon winds up, the bartender tells the men that if they really believed what they were saying, they would get out of the city, since it is a likely target. He argues that they can’t be serious about it – because the aggregate of the evidence they are presenting demands that they pick up their hats and get out. But, they argue, they have reasons to stay, and they can’t know with absolute certainty.
The bartender, listening to them, makes up his mind that they are right. He hands them the keys to the bar, picks up his hat and gets as far out of the city as he can. At the last moment, with the building behind him, he hesitates, realizing that he’s made no plans, prepared nothing, and turns around to call a family member and tell them he is coming home – only, of course (since this is fiction) to see the mushroom cloud going up in front of him.
What interests me about this story isn’t the mushroom cloud at the end, but the thought process at the center of the story – the ways in which we often disregard the implications of our own thinking, the difficulty we have with abandoning old assumptions. Even if we know our way of life can’t go on, even if we know that we’re headed for a fall, I think most of us like to think it won’t come that soon, it won’t be that bad, we’ll have time for the things we want and need.
I find myself thinking of this in response to John Michael Greer’s two latest posts on the process of our economic crisis. In “Endgame,” his post from last week Greer, usually wary of calling the end of things, always anti-apocalyptic, makes his most apocalyptic-seeming of prognostications – that we don’t have much time:
What this means, if I’m right, is that we may have just moved into the endgame of America’s losing battle with the consequences of its own history. For many years now, people in the peak oil scene – and the wider community of those concerned about the future, to be sure – have had, or thought they had, the luxury of ample time to make plans and take action. Every so often books would be written and speeches made claiming that something had to be done right away, while there was still time, but most people took that as the rhetorical flourish it usually was, and went on with their lives in the confident expectation that the crisis was still a long ways off.
We may no longer have that option. If I read the signs correctly, America has finally reached the point where its economy is so deep into overshoot that catabolic collapse is beginning in earnest. If so, a great many of the things most of us in this country have treated as permanent fixtures are likely to go away over the years immediately before us, as the United States transforms itself into a Third World country. The changes involved won’t be sudden, and it seems unlikely that most of them will get much play in the domestic mass media; a decade from now, let’s say, when half the American workforce has no steady work, decaying suburbs have mutated into squalid shantytowns, and domestic insurgencies flare across the south and the mountain West, those who still have access to cable television will no doubt be able to watch talking heads explain how we’re all better off than we were in 2000.
Those of my readers who haven’t already been beggared by the unraveling of what’s left of the economy, and have some hope of keeping a roof over their heads for the foreseeable future, might be well advised to stock their pantries, clear their debts, and get to know their neighbors, if they haven’t taken these sensible steps already. Those of my readers who haven’t taken the time already to learn a practical skill or two, well enough that others might be willing to pay or barter for the results, had better get a move on. Those of my readers who want to see some part of the heritage of the present saved for the future, finally, may want to do something practical about that, and soon. I may be wrong – and to be frank, I hope that I’m wrong – but it looks increasingly to me as though we’re in for a very rough time in the very near future.
Now Greer and I often disagree, although the substance of our disagreements tends to be pretty fine – that is, I think we agree on more than we disagree upon. In this case, I’m inclined to disagree with his prognostication that we’re headed for hyper-inflation. I agree that quantitative easing is occurring, I agree that we’re headed, as Greer argues in his next essay for life as a third world country. I’ve been writing about our future as “ordinary human poverty” for years, and I think that’s the most likely expression of both energy depletion and climate change – that we get seriously, unpleasantly poor. I suspect this will most immediately be via a rapidly increasing deflation, not hyper-inflation, but the endgame, as Greer puts it, isn’t all that different for ordinary people.
Do I agree we’re on the cusp of a big downleg? I wouldn’t be surprised – I’m not sure I’d state it quite as firmly as Greer, but all the economic signs I can see suggest that there’s an ill wind blowing, and it is picking up. I hope those of my readers who haven’t done what they can to basically make themselves secure will feel a new sense of urgency and do so.
The problem with the Heinlein story, or any other moment in time is that life is rarely convenient. Every disaster has people saying “well, that wasn’t all that bad” and people who will gladly tell you just how bitterly awful it was. Even in historical senses, the start dates for many events are in dispute. What I agree with Greer about is this – if you are still assuming that our collective crisis will wait until you are finished with school, have paid off the mortgage, are ready to move, etc… that’s a bad idea. All your plans should include a “what if something unpleasant occurred now” assumption. We all have differing abilities to make our lives secure, but what we can do – build up a basic reserve of food, work with other people, be aware of those in need around us, get out of debt, plant a garden – those things are always a good idea anyway. The time and energy you expend on them will not be wasted, even if you could have left your hat hanging a bit longer.