Today's Prophetic Noahs and Paul Reveres Sound Alarms
by Shepherd Bliss
The prophet Noah talked to people about changing their ways. They ignored him. Noah built an ark, gathered his family and hosted animals to join them. They survived and rebuilt civilization after the flood. Those who ignored Noah's warning and continued their destruction perished. We live in mythic times.
"The British are coming!" Paul Revere broadcast, awakening the slumbering colonists. Now some 230 years later, perhaps the appropriate warning would be something like, "The Americans are creating a global catastrophe!"
A civilization-destroying flood or the British Empire no longer threaten us, but other dangers abound. According to four recent books, America and those on its industrial highway may be heading into contraction, turbulence, chaos, or even collapse.
On the other hand, history has been full of false prophets. For example, not much happened because of the Y2K scare at the end of the last millennium; most computers kept going and technological society did not collapse. But before a quick dismissal of the threat that peak oil combined with environmental degradation might present, perhaps it would be wise to consider the arguments in these books.
"The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century" by James Howard Kunstler was published this month. "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond appeared earlier this year. Richard Heinberg's "Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World," 2004, followed his "The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies," published originally in 2003 and recently updated.
The ideas in these books are not all new. They are newsworthy for various reasons: "Collapse" had a huge 200,000-copy first printing by one of the world's largest publishing houses- Viking/Penguin/ Putnam. "Emergency" was widely excerpted before appearing. Heinberg has been speaking across America and is currently on an international tour in Africa and Europe. These prophetic voices may enable the concept of peak oil and its consequences to reach a critical mass and engender discussion and even some changed lifestyles.
American domination of the 20th century was based on oil. Oil production is about to peak. The date of peak oil is debatable, but it may be sooner than previously expected- perhaps even next year. Oil will continue, but less of it will cause its price to soar. Gasoline prices have already broken the $3 a gallon ceiling here in parts of Hawai'i and may soon surpass its $5 a gallon cost in Europe.
Consequences will be greatest in the United States, because of our extreme dependence upon it. Europe will not be as hard hit. "They have cars but are not car-dependent," Kunstler notes. "They did not destroy their towns and cities. We did. They did not destroy their public transit. We did. They did not destroy local agriculture. We did."
When I try to teach these facts to students at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and to friends, they often respond with doubt, or quickly change the subject. "Perilous optimism" is how Heinberg describes this response. False optimism in the face of evidence of pending disaster has historically been deadly for millions. "It has been very hard for Americans-lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring-to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter everyday life in our technological society," Kunstler writes.
Geographer Diamond's "Collapse" is the most scholarly of these four books, though it is readable. He offers 575 pages of research and analysis and an historical/ cultural narrative of societies that have either squandered or savored their natural and human resources. On the downside he examines the Polynesian culture of Easter Island, the American civilizations of the Anasazi and Maya and the doomed Viking colony of Greenland. His success stories include Japan and Iceland.
These four books are stimulating many discussions. "The suburban development machine has transformed the outskirts of Santa Rosa, CA," notes therapist Russell Sutter. "This has resulted in a landscape with the originality and authenticity of a discarded gum wrapper. It replicates the same dead, soulless neighborhood corners, strip malls with pizza shacks, and corporate big box stores with an efficiency of an assembly line. What happens to the soul of a country that creates thousands of places that no one can care about?"
"How many times have we heard very convincing predictions of imminent collapse," writes skeptical 60 year old David Holmstrom from Boston. "Hasn't happened yet, and ain't gonna happen in our lifetimes. It will continue to be a slow process, not dramatic enough to waken our 'emergency' response." Holmstrom, however, is pessimistic "about our children's lifetimes."
After Heinberg's lecture in South Africa the May 4 "Cape Times" newspaper reported him as outlining four options for America:
1. Compete for remaining resources through wars. Hampshire College Prof. Michael T. Klare describes this option in his recent article "The Intensifying Global Struggle for Energy" and earlier in his book "Blood and Oil."
2. Wishful thinking that the market or science will come to the rescue.
3. Acknowledge that we are in the early stages of disintegration and seek to preserve the most worthwhile cultural achievements.
4. "Powerdown" by reducing energy use drastically through conservation, economic sacrifice and population reduction. Heinberg describes this as "the path of self- limitation, cooperation, and sharing."
Heinberg will speak in Lisbon, Portugal, at the Fourth Annual Workshop of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil May 19-20, 2005. An abstract of his comments there published in his monthly Museletter notes, "If the 20th century saw America's economic and geopolitical ascendancy, the 21st will see its decline." Many predict that China will be the next dominant power.
All three authors look our serious problems straight in the face, but they each offer credible things to do to minimize damage and reorganize civilization. At the First US Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions earlier this year in Yellow Spring, Ohio, Heinberg described the following characteristics that alternative infrastructures should have to survive difficulties: "organic, small-scale, local, convivial, cooperative, slower paced, human-oriented rather than machine-oriented, agrarian, diverse, democratic, culturally rich, and ecologically sustainable." He suggested that people "grow more of your own food, conserve energy, become active in your local community, learn useful arts and skills, stock up on hand tools. We must plant the seeds for what can and will survive."
If what Kunstler, Heinberg, Diamond and others are saying is accurate, it should mean major modifications to endure the pending changes. Early American's responded to Paul Revere's alarm, survived, and prospered. The people of Noah's time, however, continued their destructive ways and perished. The choice is ours.
Dr. Shepherd Bliss, firstname.lastname@example.org, teaches Communication at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, writes for the Hawai'i Island Journal and has contributed to 18 books.