“The country now contains many individuals and groups seriously troubled by issues of civil rights, food, health, agriculture, economy, peace and conservation. These people have much in common, but they have no strong political voice, because few politicians have seen fit to speak for them.” -Wendell Berry, A Citizens Response
The modern world is not built on anything close to a sustainable framework. In fact, I believe you’d be hard pressed to design a more unsustainable framework. It takes no great imagination to see how we abuse our world through oil, factory farming and water usage. For most of us, the damage we’ve done has largely been in ignorance. At birth we weren’t given a choice between a sustainable and unsustainable lifestyle; we’ve been products of our environment.
But as we grow and intellectually mature, we experience a loss of innocence. The more we learn the more we can see the repercussions of our actions. It gets more difficult to use a plastic bag that will be around for 500 years, or to drive across the country for vacation. Even buying food that has been shipped 1500 hundred miles starts to weigh on our minds.
As so once we have made the commitment to living in a sustainable manner, I think it is natural to ask, how far is far enough? I believe the standard should be simple; live in a way that can be replicated by billions of people, for millions of years. Anything less is simply delaying the inevitable destruction of our planet and society.
I’m not writing this post in an attempt to scare you. My goal is that you simply take the time to research, get informed and make your own decision. I want to share some things that I’ve learned, and hopefully, these things will inspire you to dig as well.
There are only three things to take into account when thinking about the future of America and the industrialized world. Those three things are:
Oil, of course, is simple enough. We use oil for every single part of our lives- electricity, transportation, chewing gum, food production, etc. In fact, to simply go one day without using oil in any form (burning it or as a byproduct), is nearly impossible. Our modern lives have been design to use oil in every form possible.
This is a problem because we really have no idea how much oil we have left. The closest thing we have to a global governing body is OPEC, but, unfortunately, OPEC does not have auditory powers over world reserves. Essentially we have the most important substance to our global economy, and way of life, completely unregulated and without leadership. Each OPEC country is required to report their oil reserves, which for most countries has held steady for 20 years, even with increased consumption and no substantial well discoveries. Why? Because each country can only export a percentage of their reserves each year. And, for most countries, oil exports represent a major part of their economy. There is not an incentive to tell the truth on actual reserves, rather, to keep the economy going strong each country acts in its own self interest.
To compound things, there are real signs that global oil reserves are past their “peak.” This theory, first proposed by American Geophysicist Albert Hubbert, states that oil production in any geographical area follows a similar pattern, which is predictable and consistent. While many people thought Hubbert crazy, using the same old line that “we’ll never run out,” he was indeed correct in predicting the year of peak oil for the United States (1965-1970). At the time the United States was the largest exporter of oil in the world, and the idea of running out was laughable. He also predicted the global peak sometime between 2006 and 2016. Furthermore, global oil production per capita has already peaked in 1979, meaning we have not produced as much oil per person since. Because of this, oil prices have shot up significantly, and by all account should continue to do the same (for example, at the pump prices shot up $.42 this year). There is even mounting evidence to suggest global production has already peaked.
Compounded with the rate of discovery of new oil reserves capable of supporting our global thirst for oil (84 million barrels a day in 2009), as well as the questionable viability of newer methods of extraction (fracking, shale etc), the picture is grim. While there are signs that using these methods you can indeed extract oil, the cost is inhibitive on a global level. It isn’t just extracting oil; it is extracting it at a price that will support the global economy. Both methods are not viable alternatives.
Unfortunately, neither is “green” energy. Most of these technologies are in their infancy, and are largely unproductive. Only 3% of energy comes from new energy sources such as wind or solar.
The net is that we have a global addiction to oil, and the supply is running out.
Scale is an issue because of the size of the global economy and community. We are consumers. World GDP per capita has driven wealth and comfort beyond comprehension. But at what cost? Generally the cost has been at the ones less powerful to speak for themselves. Yes, this includes the proverbial polar bear and the migrant worker. Or the factory laborer in China. Or, in all of those cases, our environment as defined by the physical world in which we live.
We can’t help but buy. Every part of our lives is centered around buying; weddings, babies, courting and on and on. But to consume, you must take, and without replenishment we find ourselves in an unsustainable situation. No doubt to survive we must consume, but we must also give back, replenish the Earth and communities.
There is also a global population issue. The global boom in population has been fueled by the production and consumption of oil, the migration of families from farms to the city and the industrial revolution. Indeed, to look at a population graph, it is easy to see how quickly the human population on Earth has grown. World population has doubled since 1960 alone.
What is the true carrying capacity of the world without the use of fossil fuels? That’s a hard question to answer, somewhere between the population in 1900 of 1.6 billion (before the advent of factory farms and the full scale use of oil), and the current population of over 7 billion.
To make matters that much worse, the byproduct of our scale of consumption and population has been ecologically destructive. We are now able to cut down more forest, destroy more topsoil and pollute more waters than ever before. And because we can, we do. Most of the topsoil in the United States is largely unusable without the use of commercial, petroleum base pesticides and fertilizers. Think about that – the scale of our population and level of consumption have caused us to destroy the very base level of life on the planet.
The scale of our population, the scale of our consumption and the scale of our destruction are a bit of a trifecta of disaster.
Diversity may be the nail in the coffin. While our interconnectedness is good for business, it is not a hedge against disaster, as we saw in the 2008 financial collapse. That collapse showed us that even the failure of large, American corporations could potentially bring down the entire global community. The scale of our society in relation to the interconnectedness of our financial and societal institutions means a failure of a small part can ripple and nearly bring down the entire system.
The United States was not designed in this way. In fact, it could be argued that the founding fathers knew the danger in a culmination of power. The Republic was envisioned to be ruled by a small central government, with the majority of power being designated to the states. Furthermore, each individual community within each state was largely independent, enjoying a degree of governance as well. In this system, a failure of a small community could not threaten the whole, since each community was largely independent and self-contained. They could produce their own food, necessities and even protect themselves. Obviously, our global economy could not be more different, and at the same time, more vulnerable.
While humans have always possessed ways of destroying themselves, for the first time in history the entirety of the global community is at risk from man-made causes. Sure, we could have always been hit with an asteroid, but when Rome fell in 476, civilizations in the Americas, Africa and Asia were largely unaffected. Even in the 1929 stock market crash, rural American communities suffered from low crop prices, but were not at risk of starvation. The farmers, though, who had taken out large loans were largely unable to pay their debts and subsequently lost their farms. Today, even with minor nations like Greece or Ireland on the precipe of default, the entirety of the global economy is at stake.
In short, as the use of oil has increased, so has the scale of both our population and consumption. And as our population and consumption has increased, our cultural and economic diversity has decreased.
And so in conclusion, all that is needed is a tiny little spark; maybe global oil prices hit $200/barrel, or a congress is in session that will not bail out our financial institutions when they fail. I have no desire to be a fatalist, I certainly don’t think it is impossible to bring us back, but it may be too late for the continuation of large economies and states.
In American society, it is expected, even celebrated, to be a unique individual. Individualism carries over to every part of our lives. We have individual diet plans, individual work schedules, individual TV shows, cars, Gods, roads, clothes and of course this list could go on and on.
We have these things because as a society we are devoted to promoting the individual’s material and physical happiness. Indeed this is the entire point of Capitalism, but at a cost, of course. It is this individualism which allows for bootstrap bill to pull himself up, for an immigrant to enter the country with nothing and die a millionaire- but, it is also one of the sources of our current dillusion. This is not a place for me to tell you that humans are social animals. ”Being social” can easily be fulfilled in our society.
Rather, humans are communal animals. We strive not just for social engagements, but real communities. James Madison recognized this during the founding of this nation, and indeed place strong emphasis on the role of small communities(Federalist Paper #10). In fact, Madison considered healthy communities essential to the survival of the Republic. And so we must ask, then, what constitutes a healthy community? I’ve jotted down a few ideas:
- Like Minded Individuals- People who share a common cause, God and/or belief
- Willingness to Work Together- A community can only be sustained through shared work values
- Rule of the Majority- The concentration of power in individuals, or groups of individuals, is of great concern to the welfare of the community
- Safeguard liberty- While the wholeness of the community to paramount, the individual liberties of all must be protected, regardless of sex, wealth, religion, physical location, etc
- Self-sustained- It is pointless to form communities if they are not able to stand on their own. The true strength of a community is rooted in liberty.
I’m writing about communities because I feel this missing component will be one of the major projects to tackle in rebuilding American society. In this I mean we either have an obligation to carve out a more perfect union from our current society, or carve out a more perfect union from the remnants of what is left.
Well, in the spirit of being as extreme as possible, I’ve decided, when I can, to give up using electric lights after dark. Yes, that means using candles and going to bed early and getting up even earlier.
I guess a few reasons. Firstly, it really is a huge waste of energy to run the lights all night. If I had researched this post I’m sure I could have some crazy figures to support that statement, maybe tomorrow morning. Secondly, I sleep terribly. Terribly. I wake up 3 or 4 or 10 times a night; wide awake and ready to go. I wonder if my sleep cycle is messed up because I trick bodies into believing it is daytime by using artificial light. Thirdly, I’d like a life where I use less in general.
So there it is, we’ll see how it goes. Gotta go stock up on some candles!
I am simply a normal man, living a normal American life. I am neither rich nor poor, in fact I’d blend right into a crowd. But I feel it important to detail the steps leading to this point, which have been too numerous to count. But, to name a few; the source and quality of our food, the pervasive use of advertising to manipulate our sense of self, the hope that our self can then be redefined into buying drones, the industrial-military complex and the business behind war, the realization that my taxes fuel this industry, the loss of our freedoms guaranteed through the constitution, the loss of our hearts through separation from the land and, of course, our loss of our selves by living trite, meaningless lives isolated into islands of hyper-selfish consumers.
Now, I understand this sounds dire, and I’m sure some may believe these statements are the work of a nut. I assure you I am not crazy. I am not interested in being as extreme as the far-left will allow, or, said differently, I am not interested in a show. I am interested in following the above listed realities to their logical conclusion, which is that we are not living in harmony with the rest of the world. In fact, for the average American way of life to continue, other life and energy must be taken from somewhere or someone else. This is evidenced by the fact that since the industrial revolution, each and every major life system, including but not limited to the rain forest, polar ice caps, old growth forests, food systems and so on, are in decline. The logical conclusion means we must accept we cannot continue our current way of life without the destruction of something else, which is a question each individual must grapple with and indeed answer for themselves.
If we are to be intellectually honest, we will see each and every one of us has blood on our hands. We must take into account the scarred Earth, the Texas-sized trash pile floating in the Pacific Ocean, the exploitation of humans around the planet to support our lifestyle in sweat-shop factories and, of course, this list could go on.
At first, our response is a form of cognitive dissonance. We try, at times desperately, to convince ourselves we are good people. We buy organic food and try to shop local. We use energy efficient light bulbs and air dry our hands in public. At best, we drive in a carpool a few times a week to work. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough. Should we all mimic these patterns, the feelings associated with buying these products will not be able to halt the real possibility that, someday, life on Earth might not be possible.
As humans and Americans, sharing a vast world with a vast number of species and individuals, we must ask what seeds we are willing to sow. Do we want to live the same consumer focused lives? What level and degree of destruction are we willing to accept? What are we willing to destroy first? Or, is there something more? Is there a more peaceful, more honest and more sustainable way to live?
I am interested in simplicity, joy, love, community and care. The reasons for my interests are varied, but ultimately they boil down to peace. I wish to live at peace with myself, my planet, my god and my community. I wish not to take more than I can give, a radical idea in a consumer based society, where the act of taking and buying is of the highest priority.
And so, the question must be asked, why should I care to be at peace with the planet, myself, god and community? Why is it important to care about the trees, the land and the proverbial polar bear?
I believe man’s role on the planet is to be a caretaker, not simply a taker. The difference in the two words is stark; the first implies that to survive one must take, but intrinsic into the taking is a care for that which you are taking. The second simply implies taking, at any cost and at the expense of the whole.
Secondly, I believe in the words of Blake, that “everything that lives is holy.” This includes the wild animals that roam this planet, the animals penned up in factory farms that are slaughtered without ever tasting freedom and the animals of the sea that dwell in such complexity we can hardly comprehend their kingdoms. Furthermore our lands and soils, our crops and vegetation, from the crops we grow to the towering forests, are all holy. They are all created in perfection. Animals, crops and the land are not a resource to be exploited as quickly and haphazardly as we can technologically achieve – they are life. Simply because we have the technology to exploit our Earth at an alarming rate does not mean we should. We are taught self control as children yet completely forget it as adults.
The logical conclusion is a heavy, radical vision of a life unhinged and set free from the current standard. It means living in harmony and peace with the Earth and ourselves, a vision that will not allow for conventional American life. It is difficult to not feel crazy, or naïve, when discussing such a profound departure. The social pressures to blend in and keep going with the crowd are tremendous. It is hard to imagine the harsh reality of living without oil, without the grocery store and without a car. Is it even possible? Am I simply dreaming? I pray not, I believe the fate of our Earth rests in cracking this puzzle.
This blog will chronicle my wife and I, soon to be child and two dogs as we attempt to answer these questions in an effort to leave the planet with more bounty and beauty than how we found it. My goal is to be brutally honest, both with the good and the inevitable bad. We are going to examine what it will take for the individual and community to survive in a truly sustainable way, from both an intellectual and practical perspective.
Onwards and peace.