Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Then, now and yet to come

I took the day off from my gainful employment to come out here and get some essential chores done. Seeing this landscape of two hundred year old farms and long abandoned pastures naturally makes me think of how people lived not very long ago. I'm not sure when electricity and central heating made it out here but I would imagine that even in 1910 this was not a fossil-fueled community, although of course people had manufactured goods made and transported from far away with coal-fired steam. No more than 100 years ago the farmers used horses for transportation and traction. They had replaced whale oil with kerosene in their lamps, no doubt, but the effect would have been about the same.

My wood stove heats the whole house pretty well, even if the back bedroom is a bit chilly. But I have six inches of fiberglass wool in the walls, and double glazed windows. I know from the state of my parents' house when they first bought it -- a farmhouse built in 1835 and still largely in its original condition -- that you just can't make a house of that era warm in the winter no matter what you do.

The European settlers cut down the trees here, not so much for timber or to clear pasture, as for charcoal. When the age of petroleum arrived, the trees grew back. Old stone walls run everywhere through the forest as testimony. (They aren't really walls, they're just where the people piled up rocks to get them out of the pastures. As long as the land was cleared, they might as well let the cattle graze. But nowadays, they can grow so much corn on 40 acres they don't need the uplands any more.)

I have little trouble laying in a supply of firewood, but that's because I use a chain saw, a diesel tractor, and a hydraulic log splitter. In my barn, descending to me from my grandfather's barn in Pennsylvania, is a collection of axes, splitting malls, and crosscut bucksaws. Strong young men must have spent weeks in late winter and spring preparing for the next November, just so they could huddle in the parlor while the frigid wind filtered through the walls.

My neighbor is a writer. He has been commissioned by a magazine, as I understand it, to discuss the global environmental crisis in terms of eschatology. He wants me to concede that metaphorically, we are living in the End Times. I do not agree. On the other side of the looming radical discontinuity there will still be a planet, and people. If there were just nothing on the other side, that would abolish all responsibility. It isn't like that.

The civilization of 1860 is gone, as ours will be soon, but we're still here. Ethically and ontologically, what lies ahead is nothing like the eschatological delusions of the religious fanatics who have, bizarrely, seized a big chunk of state power in this once promising country. Exactly what it will be like, no-one knows.

There will be strife and woe, and there will certainly be many fewer people than there are now. How we get there matters. We can't just sit back and watch and mourn. We must navigate these hard times, these rough times, these stormy straits. But they won't be the End Times.


  1. we are soon replacing the gas log fireplace insert with a modern wood burning insert. i too have a chainsaw and would like my own power splitter and tractor, but i'm keeping my bow saws and maul and axes. i'd like wedges too, but the only wedges in my local stores are clunky cast iron. part of the bumpy ride ahead may make hand tools necessary.

    using the maul some has health benefits and keeps me somewhat ready for gas rationing.

  2. I'm always afraid that those among us who believe in a religious End Times will be part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They're going to make it happen to verify their faith. Pretty scary stuff. Still, we probably are past peak oil and on the downward side of things. Some number of humans will survive on the planet, especially if they know how to use the old tools, grow their own food, and learn how to be cooperative. I wish them luck.

  3. I think the magazine is just cashing in on the 2012 nonsense. Every time I read something about the End Times, I watch this video and find myself grinning from ear to ear:


  4. A slightly more thoughtful response now. I think that how well we adapt to any major environmental or cultural change is dependent on how slowly that change happens. I'm more concerned about the effects of rapid climate change: flooding, drought, poor crops. I read recently (can't verify) that over half the world's population lives in cities. Serious water shortages, as are predicted for Asia, will drive many people out of the cities into parts of their own country, or into other countries, in search of water.

    In the States, of course, as oil becomes more expensive, there will be greater pressure to explore for natural gas...and so aquifers across the country will be poisoned.

    I suppose that in countries where community and the common good are held as shared values, the transition will be much easier. Here in the States, we're still like a bunch of spoiled 2-year olds screaming, "Mine! Mine!" We won't stand a chance in extreme hard times.