August 18, 2016 § 9 Comments
She bends low in the dark. Her index finger and thumb clumsy as they meet, she pulls from the waist and the stalk she holds rises out of the hummus eagerly, offering no resistance. Her hand is dwarfed by the firm yet undulating orange blossom. The sun’s remaining light barely penetrates the gauntlet of trees that stand sentry across the rise and fall of the ridge line. Tangerine daubs speckle through the here and there breaks in the thick ceiling of maple and oak leaves.
“Say, ‘thank you, Chanterelle.’ ”
“Thank you, Chanterelle.”
Her small voice is sincere because I am sincere. She watches her feet as she steps high over sticks and briars heading back towards the trail where her mother stands smiling.
“Remember to shake it.”
She passes the mushroom side to side, moving it from her shoulder instead of her wrist. I follow behind her with long slow steps, my hat in my hand, it is full of chanterelles. Holding the bill like the handle of a small skillet, I gently bounce the mushrooms to release their spores. The rains have finally passed and the trail is soft beneath our feet.
Summer is an incredibly busy time on the homestead, which usually means I put away the effort of writing in favor of merely ruminating as I attend to the constancy of the tasks before me. This has been our most productive year yet insofar as providing our food is concerned, which is encouraging as we have accomplished this yield while living off site until our septic system installation is completed. The abundance of foods like tomatoes and green beans has been overwhelming, and the high heat has made the effort of canning very unappealing. Fortunately, we have friends willing to can for us if we are willing to share the end product, and there are even local restaurants eager to buy our produce.
Squash bugs infested my yellow crook necks and zucchini, and they killed off my Crenshaw and cucumber vines. I collected a satisfying quantity of fruit from all of these plants over the past couple of months so it is with even temper that I yank them by the root, shake them, and place them in a compost pile. When the space is clear I walk over to a wooden gate and lift the chain that holds it closed. As I pull it open a single file line of Rouen ducks comes marching out, quaking proudly as they all make their way to the now bare space before lowering their beaks and feasting on the slow moving squash bugs. I lift my feet high to avoid stepping on the kudzu like sprawl of sweet potato vines and make my way to the garden gate where I pause to wipe the sweat from my forehead. It’s hot. Humid and hot at four in the afternoon. I think on what else I can get accomplished today. We will be moving back into our home soon and there are still jobs to finish up before doing so, mainly rigging the cistern to the gutters, and installing a hand pump in the kitchen to draw from the cistern. That and cutting another few ricks of firewood. And slapping walls on the barn. And laying the flooring in my daughter’s bedroom. And planting the winter garden.
I could “and” for days. Instead I take a breath and look back at my little girl as she giggles watching the ducks. Its hard to not feel rushed and I make a conscious effort to be present, to be content with the work already done instead of always existing in the stress of that yet to do. The moist air is stagnant, and as I take a moment to scan the spaces around me, noting the tasks big and small that require attention, my mind wanders a bit, and I feel like we are on the edge of something.
This July was globally the warmest month in human memory. Such headlines are almost blase these days as warming trends continually break records. Thousands of people in Louisiana have lost their homes in what FEMA has dubbed the worst natural disaster in the United States since hurricane Sandy. Fires rage in the drought stricken American west from southern California to Glacier National Park in Montana. Social tensions continue to flare too, as the National Guard was called in to subdue rioters in Milwaukee, and random acts of violence seem to break loose from the percolating underworld of racist authoritarians emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Venezuela’s economic collapse continues apace, various African nations are succumbing to famine, the war in Syria is drawing larger battle lines between major powers, and despite the best efforts of central banks across the globe, major financial institutions just cannot turn a profit in a world of net energy decline.
For years I have watched the world through a particular lens, and that is the lens of peak oil. Despite the failures of particular peak oil advocates to predict the future, and despite the inability of even larger numbers of critics to actually understand the peak oil concept before engaging in attacking it and its proponents, I still feel that this is a particularly useful lens for viewing the macro picture of human industrial civilization. Of late, I have admittedly felt that I am without a map, and I have found myself in my quiet moments attempting to piece one together. Of course, drawing a map begins with placing a center pin where you currently stand. So where am I? Or if I may be so bold, where are we?
I first became aware of the peak oil concept in 2004 when I was twenty-three years old. After reading the various assessments of the issue that were available on the internet at the time, and of course, being young and impressionable, I took to some of the worst case scenarios presented by outlying bloggers. By and large, these were not the better experts to trust, and I was convinced that ten years out we would be living in a very different world. The economic crash of 2008 felt validating in a sense, but the divergence from prediction that followed forced me to begin rethinking how the decline of industrial civilization would play out. Eight years of very, let us say, creative economics have prevented the full on breakdown of the growth based financial paradigm. I do not believe I am alone in wondering exactly how long such creative policies can sustain the physical world of the production and distribution of material goods.
To be perfectly clear, I am no fan of the civilized model of human organization, and I have repeatedly stated this in my writing. But I do my best to be aware of its functionality so I can properly place myself and my family to best buffer ourselves from the swings of forces beyond our control. The internet is rife with commenters who are eager to bargain with Moloch, hoping to right what they perceive to be the ills of state and capital so that some form of industrial civilization can carry them into the future. These commenters have altars to different demigods. Some light a candle to technology while others burn incense for invisible hands and supposedly free markets. I look out and see dying ash trees and the onslaught of invasive stilt grass and I know in the core of my being that there is no bargaining with civilization. No vertical farm, no vegan diet, no gold-backed currency, no handing over of the means of production to the proletariat will stop what’s coming.
But it is equally true that it is next to impossible to know exactly what is coming, or when it will get here. That is why we try to draw maps. And if we want our maps to be of any use, they should probably start with what we know about the past and the present, so maybe, the best of our efforts can draw lines between the two that give some clue as to the trajectory and direction of the future.
Over the years as I have written on these topics I have been careful to avoid prediction, simply because most people who in engage in it are so often wrong. What’s worse, is that so many people who make names for themselves as so called “trends analysts” and such, not only are often wrong, but they refuse to acknowledge when they are so, and they just continue with the business of making predictions. I would rather make a map, a sketch of the terrain we have covered and of that which I can see through the fog in front of me. As this is a map of the industrial civilization in which we live, there are two compass points which are of extreme importance.
First, is net energy. All work done requires energy to make it happen. The primary energy source for this civilization is oil. This is what makes an understanding of peak oil concepts so valuable. Oil is the foundation of the lion’s share of the work done in this civilization, even being the foundational energy source behind the manufacture of items like solar panels. The diesel trucks that mine for metals or that grow the crops that feed workers are all run with oil. The economic and social architecture of this society requires a growth in the net energy available with which to do work. This is not necessarily a growth in the amount of barrels of oil available at any given time. If those specific barrels of oil utilized more energy in their acquisition than usual, we may be in a situation where we have more quantity of oil available yet less total energy. This will hamper growth, which while good for the ecology of the planet, is a death sentence to financial paradigms where debt is the basis of currency and investment.
The second compass point of importance is the ecological material available to support society. Drinkable water, healthy soil, viable biomes thrush with life, a stable climate; all are necessary to maintain human life and activity. Unfortunately, this point is lost on the so-called educated class who think only in terms of capital. I stress this point because even in the event that a miracle occurs and our energy woes vanish, there is still the issue of our destabilizing climate and over burdened ecosystems. We need bees and butterflies and ants to pollinate crops. We need amphibians to keep insect populations in balance. We need birds to spread seeds. We need fungus and soil life to make plants viable at all. Human activity threatens all of these beings and their habitats.
So as I sketch my map I note the peak of conventional oil production that occurred in the 2005-2008 timeframe. I note the bankruptcies that are tearing through the US unconventional oil industry. I note the banks across Europe that are on the verge of insolvency. I definitely note the trillions of dollars worth of debt monetization across the global financial sector which have been an attempt to cover the spread of missing growth that is required to make good on previous loans and outstanding interest. I also note the shortfalls in needed rain in the American west, the predicted water shortage in Lake Mead, the rising seas and the unprecedented storms. When I step back at my scrawled lines, I see images reminiscent of times past. Politically there are movements that seem to rhyme with what came out of the depression era, and economically there are movements that very much remind me of the warnings that began flashing in 2007 as the mortgage industry began to implode. The page, too, is dotted with the unpredictable lines of natural disaster and ecological calamity.
Simply stated, this is what I see: A period of economic depression is on the wind. My gut says we see an undeniable beginning of this period before winter. Where it all leads is too far out to say. I think it is simplistic when people draw a timeline of the future that consists merely of one trend-line pointing downward. There are hundreds if not thousands of trend-lines that together combine to graph the arch of a particular civilization, and some will yet be on the rise. It is when a majority of the significant trend-lines slump downward that we can say with certainty a society is in decline. It is my humble position that what we have on the horizon is a period of greater unemployment and struggle on a family by family level here in the “first world west.” There will be a shake out of never-to-be-solvent again institutions, and a generalized acknowledgement of a paradigm of “hard times” being upon us. Natural disasters will be harder and harder to recover from as they will strike more often in regions where status quo thinking believes them too unlikely or impossible and this will combine with a financial inability to afford repair. Politically, people will seek easy and incorrect answers, so on that front we will have nothing new in thinking modality, but we will see new lows in practical application.
Of course, this is a map I am trying to draw for myself so that I can better prepare for the terrain before me and mine. And I’m just some guy who likes homegrown beets and wild mushrooms, so take anything I have to say with that in mind. But at least I’m not trying to sell you a pamphlet about gold coins, and you’ll notice there are no ads for gas masks or survival seeds on my web page (unless word press puts them there.)
My personal activity includes shoring up on the basics. Preventative car maintenance on both of our four wheel drive Jeeps, which each contain tools and flashlights, so that floods and storms are more navigable. Selling off unneeded items to pay for home improvements as well as a bit more archery gear as I want to take a deer by bow this fall and to make as much jerky as possible. Buying all of my spring seeds now, and making sure we have plenty of simple things like candles and lighters, lard and honey. This is all stuff that gets regular use, so there are no regrettable wastes of money.
My index finger presses into the soft soil with ease. A dried pea falls silently into the hole and I sweep lose earth with the blade of my hand to cover it. Four inches to the left, I repeat the process, and then again, and then again, all the way down the fence line. The red cabbage have only just broken through the surface of the dirt in their seed trays, so it’ll be a week or so yet before I move them into the field where right now potatoes are living their final days before harvest. Parsnip greens are tall, and I mentally make note of which ones I want to leave to winter over before checking on the newly planted kale. Everbearing strawberries are still putting on fruit, and my daughter is occupied now lifting their leaves and excitedly yanking the plump red berries.
Cicada chatter rises and falls in the nearby tree canopy and again I stand to survey the land. Tent worms are killing an apple tree. Sunflowers stand tall in the afternoon heat. I see dead trees that need felling, weeds that need mowing, fence posts that need straightening, and job after job after job that lay before me. I have a plenty of time to ruminate, observe, and ruminate again, and will revisit writing again when cold winds blow. Maybe I will think back to this piece and feel foolish, but I will not be afraid to say I was wrong. My immediate terrain is so more much knowable, even if it is pocked with struggle and strain. To my left our gravel drive stretches off into the woods, and as I look off to the cool forest there is a flash in my mind of a hunter walking with his bow, and in this moment, I envy him.