I was talking with friends about paths not taken. It’s not really that I think of life in terms of Frost’s roads diverging in a wood. The paths that take us where we end up seem to be the summary of ten thousand micro-decisions. Sometimes there’s the clarity and challenge of a fork, but only because of the preceding thousand, barely-noticed choices that put you on that road. But, nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about my own road-not-taken. It’s not the obvious ones – like I could have stuck more determinedly in academia or done a different kind of writing or lived in a different part of the country. As far as all of those alternatives go (to the extent there were forks that might have taken me there) I’m not much tempted to dwell on them.
No, for me the path not taken has to do with actually living up to my convictions when it comes to participating in our fundamentally unsound and unsustainable society. Whether intellectually or instinctually, I know that our civilization is heading for the rocks – and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the (fading) hope that we are going to do anything about it.
It is not just about the unsustainability of our civilization. It is the fact that we have been ruthlessly destroying the generative foundations of everything we depend on. Not just using up resources, but destroying the very systems that create and renew the resources we depend on. We are like the heirs to a fortune, that not only ruined and looted the investments, but squandered all of the capital, and took out triple mortgages on every property that he could claim ownership of. Then we congratulated ourselves on the quality of the champagne we were able to purchase with our wealth.
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It’s obvious that our economic system is a house of cards – a vast ponzi scheme that is on the verge of cashing out. (The financial system is only the purest refinement of this.) Among the motley collection of tyrants, plutocrats, and sociopaths who hold the reigns of power these days, there is apparently no vision or will to do anything but perpetuate the scheme however much longer they can manage. But eventually, people are going to find out how much real wealth they actually own.
Then there’s the fact that this global civilization, with all its interconnections (and not incidentally its ability to feed nearly 7 billion people), is utterly dependent on the availability of cheap, energy-dense fossil fuels. The food we eat, the things we use, the geographies and architectures that we live in – the logic of all of it is oil. A hundred million years of jungle and forest and reef, lived, took their energies from the sun and then laid down a portion of that as hydrocarbons in the fissures of the earth. We have found ways to suck that out and release the pent energies of a hundred million years in a remarkable orgy of exuberance and technological enthusiasm. Now, inevitably the age of cheap fossil fuel is drawing to a close, and there is no plan at all to use what we have left to transition to a new system. (Or I should say rather that all of the plans that are out there, from windfarms and biofuels to tar sands and nukes are all ludicrously shy of the mark. They don’t seem capable of successfully transitioning us to something that we might recognize as a continuation of our civilization.)
But then again, that may turn out to be the least of our problems, because a century of yanking out and burning those fossilized jungles and marshes, has released enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to send the global climate spiraling toward Hothouse Earth. The repercussions of that alone might have been enough to bring this civilization down even if it weren’t already teetering on the brink. So far there is no sign that humans will do anything but rip out and burn the last reservoirs of hydrocarbons they can find.
Even without climate change, 7 billion people and the resources they consume have already destroyed ecologies around the world. Resilient natural systems have been replaced with fragile, ill-designed, man-made ones. The prairies of the US Great Plains are replaced by a monoculture of hybrid corn, which will end abruptly as soon as fuel falls short or aquifers run dry. The Gulf of Mexico is possibly dying before our eyes. The forests of southeast Asia and South America go up in smoke in the name of global GDP. One of the planet’s Great Extinctions has been playing out, and there is a loss of resiliency, diversity, and resource that leaves every part of the world less able to adapt to changing conditions.
So far, the response of the species has been the equivalent of pissing on a forest fire – utterly out of proportion to the challenge.
Local adaptation and retrenchment is going to be the survival strategy of those places that will make it.
For a long time I could pretend that I held out hope we would adapt successfully. That we would rescue our civilization from it’s own self-destructiveness. But it’s become harder and harder to imagine plausible scenarios for that anymore. I’m not assuming that we are going to be living in a Mad Max dystopia. Actually, I’m still hoping for the Almaty I lived in, circa 1995. In the midst of economic breakdown, cultural disruption, ecological damage, and a sense of diminishing futures, people were thrown onto their most basic resources to cobble together a semblance of normal living.
I can’t live my life preparing for the apocalypse. But I could be preparing myself and my family for the breakdown – because I do believe it is coming. And that preparation is the path I haven’t taken.