A Wicked Confluence

Sometimes the lull of late summer is deceptive. A blanket of heat drapes across the land; the nights give way to the hypnotic roar of insects. The warmth lingers until the dawn, only giving a short reprieve before ramping up again. It’s difficult to envision radical upheavals at this time, just as difficult as it is to picture the hazy landscape giving way to snow in but a few months. All the same, it is from this dreamy state that we face unprecedented change. And we face it soon.

It’s all still phrased as a temporary down-turn; they have to call it that or fundamental questions would be asked. Even so, the most optimistic among us realize something is wildly wrong, even if they dare not give the feeling words.

We are the ones who will witness breathtaking change. Every history buff has an era they would like to have been witness to. Would anyone wish to observe our moment? Ours may be the most profound and rapid unraveling to ever color this globe.

We have so many crises converging upon us, like several flood-swollen rivers finding a confluence. It’s conceivable that our problems can be dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, but it’s the sheer number and severity of all the factors together which point to a very different world emerging. A dark synergy.

We have built a consumer-driven economy that relies on infinite growth. The folly of this is that it was implemented on a finite planet! Growth is needed in this system; new bubbles have to be inflated. It’s the way of things until the very system devours all that can be had.

The steroid for all this growth has been that of Peak Oil. No longer in the realm of oddball conjecture, respected entities like the International Energy Agency consider that we reached the peak of easily available oil in 2006, and that we are now on the downhill slope. That is not to say that we are going to be out of oil rapidly. It’s that we now are left with oil that is more difficult and dangerous to slurp up.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is a perfect example of this. You don’t drill 35,000 feet into the seabed (for comparison Mount Everest is 29,029 feet) if the easy stuff is still to be had. On the opposite end of availability, the Seneca would utilize oil that was available at the surface long ago. They used it for medicinal purposes as they scooped it up with baskets. Babylon was even said to have an asphalt type material within its walls.

We have to drill halfway to hell for it now. No adequate response has been formulated to transition to anything else in quantity, so issues such as food distribution, petro-chemical agriculture techniques, they are all going to become increasingly costly. This puts all of the population at risk. This is what happens when the oil industry is the government (or can at least buy it when necessary).

The easy energy available in the form of petroleum had many branching repercussions in the last century. New inventions arrived at an exponential pace. The problem is that we are now reaching an effect known as the Law of Diminished Returns.

A common example of this effect is that of antibiotic usage. When penicillin became widely available, it was nothing short of a miracle. This happy time has passed, and now due to the promiscuous quality inherent to bacteria, there is ever emerging resistance that we cannot adequately treat. We have a few Gorillacillins that try to thwart these newly outfitted germs, but every year brings us closer to a moment when the return on antibiotics is diminished to the point that we will be essentially back to the era prior to them. This was anticipated and warned against, but we still let it occur. It’s continuing as we speak, especially in the agricultural sector.

Animals are given “maintenance” doses of antibiotics to enable squalid conditions that would normally not be feasible. This is a perfect breeding ground for new resistant qualities to emerge. We will have to maneuver in this new environment with a sense of being part of the natural world, including the microbial. Perhaps this new vulnerable role will mark Peak Hubris, but I doubt it.

Of course, the monster of all shattered future scenarios comes via climate change. If you are still stubborn enough to dispute that this is in play, please just speak to some of your local gardeners. You can bet they have noticed the shifts and the strangeness. People can fight all they want about the causes, but it won’t stop them from having to deal with the reality of it. Climate change has happened in the past, and it’s instructive to look at the human cost of those incidents.  Our changes look to be more drastic than the historical precedents we can study, however.

Around 985 the Norse branched out, settling in southern Greenland. They did this during a relatively warm era, and for a time their colony prospered. But the “Little Ice Age” period began a few hundred years later, causing the colony to dwindle and ultimately fail. The unfortunate souls watched their world become colder and more hostile and unfortunately they did not adapt as the Inuit did. They completely vanished, most likely due to clinging to a way of life that only worked during warmer times.

We are looking at an even more radical change in weather stability with our overall warming trend. If we don’t respond in a nimble manner (as did the Inuit) our fate will likely resemble the Norse colonists.

A very bizarre theory (but frankly plausible) is that the witchcraft hysteria of those centuries was exacerbated by the climate change. Women were considered to be tied to nature more than men (and obviously this was not viewed in a positive sense during these times) and single women were often accused of using their witchcraft to play havoc with the weather. Cold spells and hail decreased crop yields and it was common to place blame in strange places. Hard times and erratic weather are not “crucibles” for enlightened societal behavior.

As if climate change, peak oil, and diminished returns weren’t enough to deal with, we are entering these dangerous times with some of the most venal characters in history leading the way. Political discourse has been relegated to nonsense as the uber-wealthy continue to solidify a new divine right.

It’s difficult to imagine our present day leaders taking on the moral imperative to solve these problems. It’s a reign of narcissism with little eye to the future. Can you picture Bush and Obama conversing by letters in their old age, exploring topics like Adams and Jefferson? I can’t either.

This is to say that we have danger and fright stalking our futures. That damn “may you live in interesting times” curse from an ancient Chinese passive aggressive — well, that’s the fortune for each and every one of us.

The problems are daunting and to be certain, there aren’t going to be easy answers. But one thing is clear; if we make no attempt to steer the collapse in the most equitable way possible, we could very well be looking at a return to something that resembles a feudal society, one with walled off enclaves for the very wealthy and misery for the great majority. They haven’t the right to cause this to happen. We must be focused and know that the upheavals are pending. We can’t be distracted by the short term ploys and the nonsensical behavior that passes for leadership.

The complexity of the issues should not frighten us into submission. It simply means that the status quo cannot continue and a time of collapse and failure of the old ideas opens the possibility for something different. We can try for a system a little less corrosive to the environment and the soul. Tolerating anything less may herald an extinction level event for our kind.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

— Oscar Wilde

We are facing terrible monsters and hard choices in the near future, but we must never think that we only deserve the gutter.

Kathleen Wallace Peine welcomes reader response. She can be reached at: kathypeine@gmail.com. Read other articles by Kathleen.