Monday, May 05, 2008

Dispatches from the Dark Side

WARNING TO READERS: This post is not about a happy nature walk in the woods. Persistent reading may cause eyes to glaze over and promote cravings for the latest Nancy Grace show on “Where the White Woman At?”.

Scottsdale, Arizona

April 24, 2008

We live in a time and place full of contrasts, variety, freedom, mobility, opportunity and distractions. There are times when my life is going in so many directions at once, it’s a chore just trying to grasp how – and even if - it all fits together and makes sense. One week I can be riding my bicycle to Moose Hill to wait for woodcocks on a chilly evening, and the next I can be sitting by the spa pool at a five-star resort. But I can’t relax because all the rich people around me can’t just turn off their cell phones and enjoy the moment. Last night, back at home, I was at a live concert and a young boy sitting in front of me was listening to his iPod. In Iraq, people are killing and dying in our name, but our news sources tell us of the outrage over a 15-year-old pop singer posing for a photograph with bare shoulders, and a prominent news figure spills her guts about an illicit relationship with a U.S. senator just to pump up book sales. We are so busy rushing ahead, we never pause to think about where we are headed. As they say, we don’t know where we’re going, but we’re making great time. I find myself wishing a magical sprite would whisper the Truth in our ears.

Scottsdale, Arizona is a place where they’ve been making very good time, indeed, but every time I go there, I see lemmings rushing forward, not seeing the cliff just over the next hill. It is a world of highways and big box stores. It is populated with Escalades, Expeditions and Yukon XLs. Even in the warm, sunny, dry weather of April, there were very few people on foot or bicycle. There are fancy new sidewalks and bike lanes, but they go mostly unused. The bright sun shines every day, but there are no solar panels in sight. The bewilderment I felt when there last year (See “Wandering in the Desert,” April 13, 2007.) was only reinforced this time.

In the past, when going on vacation, I would take a stack of books and magazines, fantasizing about endless hours of quiet reading. With age comes at least a little wisdom and I now know that our trips are much too busy for that. Now, I try to bring one good book and immerse myself in it for the whole trip. Last year, it was Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy about how we need to start decentralizing everything and start building lives close to home based on the inter-connected web of community.

This year, I learned more about exactly why that is by reading James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency. (Yes, that guy again.) His basic argument is that the oil is already running out and, at the rate we’re going, it will soon be gone. In the past century, everything we have built was - and everything we do is- based on the assumption that fossil fuel will be cheap and plentiful forever. There is no magical technology on the horizon that will save our sorry butts when the taps go dry. I have the bad misfortune of believing everything he says. Life would be so much more fun if I didn’t find myself constantly looking around me and imagining what life will be like with no electricity, no natural gas, no gasoline, no diesel fuel, no heating oil. Where will plastic come from without petroleum? Food prices are on the rise now, but what will a loaf of bread be worth when we’re trying to grow wheat on the golf courses, by hand, without farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fossil water pumped from deep underground? God, I’m depressed. I wonder what’s happening on Wisteria Lane?

I saw signs of the impending Long Emergency everywhere I looked that week in Arizona. One day on the front page of the New York Times there was one article about how one of Saudi Arabia’s last big oil fields is turning out to be more difficult to pump than expected. There was another story about a guy in Boulder, Colorado who is making a business of tearing up lawns to put in mini-farms (The neighbors are not happy.) because of the increasing cost of maintaining those lawns and remorselessly rising food prices. Another article describes how some warehouse club stores like BJ’s, Costco and Sam’s Club are rationing rice because people are hoarding it. Imagine that! Hoarding and rationing food in the USA. John McCain, and then the desperate Hillary Clinton, were crowing about a summer driving season (read voting season) gas tax holiday, further proving to me how gutless our leaders are on this issue.

It’s called cognitive dissonance, and I was exhibiting all the symptoms.There I was, jetting back and forth across the continent at something like 500 miles per hour, eating gluttonous quantities of imported gourmet food, swimming in heated pools, and enjoying a green manicured and watered landscape in the middle of a desert. We flipped on the air conditioning with barely a second thought and enjoyed the fountains and man-made waterfalls spraying water into the arid air. In the 10 days of our visit, our group went through literally thousands of bottles of spring water, all of it trucked in from elsewhere and none of the plastic bottles recycled. On one side of my brain I could clearly see how we are all headed to Hell in a hand basket, while on the other side I was having a wonderful time. It was great to be together with family and to have every creature comfort instantly available.

I was a guest on this fabulous vacation, so I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but I felt as though I was on an anthropological expedition to a world where money and privilege isolate some people from the realities of diminishing resources while poor souls elsewhere struggle to survive. I looked around at the hundreds of other vacationers and wondered if any of them even considered the eventual consequences of such decadence and waste. I also reminded myself that my own lifestyle back home – which I like to consider modest - is unbelievably extravagant in the big picture of things. I thanked my lucky stars to be an American and to have lived most of my life in the golden age of oil.

I clearly recall driving around in the mid-1970's, not long after the 1973 Oil Crisis, and thinking I'd better enjoy my driving now because we won't be doing it much longer. I remember my organic chemistry professor explaining, in 1973, that losing gasoline was only a part of the problem and that many vital organic compounds are derived from petroleum. It has always been evident to me that fossil fuel supplies were finite and that we should use what we have wisely and conservatively. I never understood why we wouldn't want to save some for our grandchildren.

Now, I know where we live in New England, we also drive everywhere and we have to heat our homes in the wintertime, but there’s something about the Phoenix area that makes the modern American lifestyle seem so much more foolish. Maybe it’s because New England was settled by Europeans long before fossil fuel powered everything and it’s possible - on some level – to imagine life without it. At least we have our own water and it’s easier to warm a home without petroleum than it is to cool one. We have lakes, rivers, oceans and the remnants of rail lines to travel on as the oil disappears. We can actually grow food here. The desert has lots of solar power, but there will never be enough of that to power all those cars and air conditioners. Without fossil fuel to power the pumps, the canals that carry their water will dry up. Scottsdale, as it is today, didn’t exist 40 years ago. In 40 years from now, it will be gone.

Any drive or jog around Scottsdale will take the traveler past many gated communities. Along with granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and three-car garages a gate and – better yet – a guard house at the entrance to the development is evidence of fine upscale living in 21st Century America. I would love to get some candid opinions about what these people think they’re fencing out. I suspect it’s Mexicans or, perhaps, judgmental tourists. But no matter how fancy the gates, or how high the walls, these people will not be protected from the disruption and upheaval that awaits us all during the Long Emergency.

Labels: ,