Seeing my county paper’s profile of me on one of my favorite websites startled me. Because it’s gone beyond the neighborhood, I’d like to clarify and correct some bits of it.
The article was based in part on some outdated information that I provided. It behooves me to correct the record and confess that I do now have a computer, two, in fact — an iMac and a MacBook — and a website (www.smillswriter.com). I never wanted a computer and would have much preferred to continue writing as I had for the previous twenty years, using a manual typewriter, cutting, pasting and colorfully marking up my revisions then giving them to a typist for grooming. But I was broke and was given the technology on the premise that it would improve my productivity and therefore my income. The road forked and I took the path more traveled by.
In fact what the advent of the computer and Internet access has correlated with, besides countless pounds of CO2 belched into the atmosphere by the server farms catering to my unfortunate online spelling game (BookWorm) addiction, seem to be a distinct erosion in the quality of my writing and thought, and aggravated depression.
Thanks to Heinberg’s Museletter and The Community Solution arriving in the mail, I knew about Peak Oil a couple of years before I had the means to read the vast and mesmerizing outpourings and the subject occupying their corner of the Internet. The implications of Peak Oil fit the frame of reference I’d been writing within, if not sufficiently acting upon, for the past thirty years and reaffirmed the grim outlook for civilization. But now the Internet allows me to fixate on the bad news, like a moth to a flame. Up to a point it helps to know. Beyond that it’s masochism.
This point about the computer is not trivial. They say it’s a poor worker who blames her tools. I say it’s denial not to investigate their effects on psyche, substance, and politics, which Chellis Glendinning has lately done to brilliant effect in her “Every Move You Make,” an essay on TechnoFascism.
Wendell Berry’s principled stand against using a word processor was one that I, as a Luddite, sought to emulate. In the 80s and 90s there was a brisk conversation among a number of public intellectuals — Berry, Glendinning, Jerry Mander, Kirkpatrick Sale and myself among them — about the structural consequences of interlinked industrial and information technologies. It was not so long ago, but seems like another era entirely, that so radical a discussion could occur. Fortunately, we kept a record, and I made a book Turning Away From Technology (New Society Publishers), out of those conversations. The arrow of history has flown past, perhaps consigning our criticisms to the cabinet of interesting but obviated thoughts.
Nevertheless our meshed industrial and electronic technologies have, it seems to me, conditioned us in exactly the wrong ways to be living, thinking, and engaging our moment of converging scarcities. The so-called information economy has deepened our dependencies and facilitated our drastic overshooting of earthly limits. Yet it’s inextricably in the mix of how we live. Although cyberspace will probably be a diminished presence in those everyday lives where push is coming to shove and the utility bill competes with the grocery bill for cash; the generation-inverting, instantly if superficially gratifying effects of living in the infosphere are unlikely to be teased out of the bourgeois mentality any time soon. And so another fundamental decline in the character of our lives has been effected, rapidly, and without serious consideration about its consequences to our humanity.
Seeing that profile in the context of Energy Bulletin made me wish that I’d been a little more hard-hitting and less wannabeMidwesternly nice with the reporter. But the Cassandra gig is wearying for all concerned. I’ve been confronting the myriad permutations of denial of the limits to growth since 1969 and not only haven’t made much of a dent, at least not in my immediate milieu, but am fresh out of angles. Still, I need to set the record straight: Although the present is strangely paradise I frankly dread the future.
I’m writing at the apogee of summer’s lushness. They’re cutting hay in some of the fields around where I live. When I pass by on my bike I wonder how many men and women with how many sickles, scythes and rakes it would take to harvest that ten or twenty acres, and how much lemonade and creek-cooled tea on a 90 degree day. Frankly, I cannot see us getting from here — with the convenience of diesel mowers and balers and rollers — to there. Not many of the kids I know are listing “peasant” among their vocational preferences.
Yes, I have been an advocate of the pleasures of material simplicity, but that’s just making a virtue — and some uplifting prose — of necessity. I live simply because I can and I like it like that. It’s voluntary simplicity, not subsistence or poverty. (I can’t imagine that the latter is not in my future — why would a 60 year-old bluestocking be able to dodge that bullet? Alas, ‘tis a grim thing to watch oneself become obsolete, a luxury unaffordable on the other side of the peak.) I just kept on living the way ecologically aware people started to do in the 60s back when green lifestyles were first invented. My footprint is smaller than some but still gargantuan by world standards.
As a personal, feminist stand on overpopulation, I chose not to have children. It was a sacrifice that seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that I start creaking and caving, it seems to have been a little rash (who will intervene on my behalf when the miserable attendants at the Dickensian workhouse nursing home start neglecting or abusing elderly me?) I know for a fact that taking that stand influenced some other lives, but not very many out of the 3 billion then, 6 billion now.
But the world turns and thanks to the MacArthur certified Genius Mike Davis in his
Farewell to the Holocene”, we are apprised that the geologic era in which civilization developed is officially over:
Our world, our old world that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended, even if no newspaper in North America or Europe has yet printed its scientific obituary.
This February…the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London was adding the newest and highest story to the geological column.
The London Society is the world’s oldest association of Earth scientists… its Commission acts as a college of cardinals in the adjudication of the geological time-scale….In geology, as in biology or history, periodization is a complex, controversial art….
Although the idea of the “Anthropocene” — an Earth epoch defined by the emergence of urban-industrial society as a geological force — has been long debated, stratigraphers have refused to acknowledge compelling evidence for its advent.
At least for the London Society, that position has now been revised.
To the question ‘Are we now living in the Anthropocene?’ the 21 members of the Commission unanimously answer ‘yes.’ They adduce robust evidence that the Holocene epoch — the interglacial span of unusually stable climate that has allowed the rapid evolution of agriculture and urban civilization — has ended and that the Earth has entered ‘a stratigraphic interval without close parallel in the last several million years.’ In addition to the buildup of greenhouse gases, the stratigraphers cite human landscape transformation which ‘now exceeds [annual] natural sediment production by an order of magnitude,’ the ominous acidification of the oceans, and the relentless destruction of biota.
This new age, they explain, is defined both by the heating trend (whose closest analogue may be the catastrophe known as the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum, 56 million years ago) and by the radical instability expected of future environments. In somber prose, they warn that ‘the combination of extinctions, global species migrations and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures is producing a distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal. These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks.’
Evolution itself, in other words, has been forced into a new trajectory.
It’s borne in on me that nothing I or any ten movements could have done would have been enough to forestall this reckoning. Yet we have done some things, offered some friction. In ”Happy Freaking New Year”, Earth First! cofounder Mike Roselle credits the ecology movement with saving those aforementioned survivors:
Somehow, against all odds, humanity survived the 20th century, and we are heading into the 21st century with even bleaker prospects. It is worth remembering that many conservationists back in the early 1970’s predicted that things would be much worse then they are now. The fact that things are not as bad as predicted is because of the work environmental activists have done throughout the world. The reason we still have whales, grizzly bears, large tracts of rainforest, and salmon in our rivers is due to the efforts of our global environmental movement, a movement that was quite small during the beginning of the last century.
Gonzo leader that he is, Roselle offers both hope and injunction:
Because of climate change, a new environmental movement is now developing that will dwarf anything we have ever seen. This probably seems an outlandish statement but consider the number of billionaires, movie stars and religious leaders and even politicians that are starting to sound like Earth Firsters. When a majority of people on Earth agree that there must be limits to growth the environmental movement will have succeeded in the first step towards addressing the problem. In the past we often had to operate in the minority and soft pedal the issues. Now the need is for the cold hard truth.
If the junk science of the upstart (only founded in 1807) Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London holds, all bets are about to be off and the consumerist lifeway is going down. Maybe we still have the possibility of going peacefully into involuntary simplicity but the precedents for doing so are scarce and esoteric.
This place where I live, Leelanau County, Michigan is indeed beautiful and still can claim handfuls of people who have some skillful means and the prerequisite frugality, but we, too, are fixing to sail off the cheap energy cliff. Yes, there are people who live off the grid. There is even one woman who’s practicing subsistence CSA agriculture (and confronting the disbelief of her interns when confronted by the proposition of living off what they grow — I couldn’t hack it, either but for most of us some day that will be the likeliest option remaining). There are many kitchen gardens. It doesn’t amount to relocalization or sustainability, though and time’s just about up.
In the meantime, we are all doing business as has been usual, pretty much, myself included. No car sharing on my road. We’ve all still got our tiny fists in the monkey trap. That monkey trap is woven individualism, privacy, personal property — the crippling disinclination to cooperate as if our lives depended on it with others unrelated by blood, marriage, or intellectual affinity.
This is not to say that the county doesn’t see genuine outpourings of mutual aid from time to time — the service club spaghetti dinner to help defray someone’s devastating medical expenses is a regular occurrence. But the day-in, day-out working together for Long Emergency preparedness of the sort that Albert Bates outlines in his recent post (“Whither Nashville?”), let alone local self-reliance in our woodburban neighborhoods hasn’t begun. Between the realities, responses, and strategies analyzed and reported on so well by the Energy Bulletin’s many contributors and the operating assumptions of my community, the disjunction appears to be vast. Perhaps the reason I didn’t ascend the bully pulpit of that county paper interview and really let fly with some serious gloom and doom is that I didn’t want to alienate my geographic neighbors. Maybe my pleasant dissimulation will entice a local reader or two to buy one of my books and get my unvarnished, if complex, truth as I have written it at length.
It’s been obvious, since the Y2K threat, that to begin meeting our basic needs some serious collaboration with the people within walking distance is called for. But how to broach the subject of our scraping the bottom of the oil, water, soil, phosphate, natural gas, coal, and civility barrels when there’s bucking hay, a family reunion, graduation open house, softball game or wedding reception on the calendar?
So what’s a silver-streaked lady ecology writer to do? Be nice, be friendly, avoid the troubling topics, read the classics, don’t feel morally obliged to infect others with a perfectly warranted alarm and pessimism; cut other people’s hopes for their futures some slack, rather. Technique and accurate information will be important in the coming dark age, temperament perhaps equally so. People need to think well of themselves, to think themselves competent, and to be able to make it through the day without horror. That’s the American way. Who am I to tell 10,000 ostensibly complacent neighbors that the ship is going down, that the lifeboats haven’t been ordered, and that there is no lifeboat factory, especially at the height of summer, when the days are so fine and fair?
Stephanie Mills is a longtime bioregionalist who has since 1969 been writing and speaking about ecology and social change. Her books include Tough Little Beauties, Epicurean Simplicity, and In Service of the Wild. She lives near Maple City, Michigan.