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I can pinpoint the exact moment in time when I realized that my everyday life had been modestly altered by my thoughts about the impending end of civilization as we know it. I was sitting in a small meeting room of a company located in the Montreal region. A Human Resources manager was explaining my benefits and pension to me. I had just commenced the job, and it was the kind of job that a good number of that company’s employees were happy to work for life – meaning that their financial contributions probably would amount to a secure and prosperous future. Yes, yes, very sensible, I thought. But in my usual contrarian and stuck-up way, I didn’t give a damn.
To not care about benefits and pension – that wasn’t new. When I was in my early twenties I sat through similar meetings and I didn’t care about my pension because my pension was forty years away and thus an abstraction. More recently, however, my abject apathy has been based on something different. In that meeting room, during the talk of tax deductions and employer contribution and RRSPs, a rather childish monologue was playing inside my head that went something like this.
“You’re asking me to think about my security in the year 2040? What on earth can I stash away in the bank that will ensure my security in the year 2040? Good Lord, the entire banking system might well have collapsed by then. There could be anarchy, looting, and cannibalism on the streets of New York. Or we could be living under the jackboot of totalitarian oppression and have all our property conviscated by the state. One thing is for sure – to assume we’re going to live the same way in 2040 as we do now, with our RRSPs and suburban bungalows and barbecues and Winnebagos – well, it’s just that, an assumption.”
This monologue in my head has only cranked up in amplification with every passing month since – the voice that tells me that investing in the present for the hope of future gain is probably rather futile. Nevertheless, rationally, I know that I should pay my debts and that I should try and buy property some day, because, like everyone else, I am living by the logic of the current system.
But that doesn’t make the present seem any less surreal to me. When I try and describe to myself what I think is going on, the only fitting analogy that illuminates events of the day is addiction – en masse. What we’re addicted to is a lifestyle that by its very nature is going to kill us. It’s fuelled by oil. It’s dependent upon treating the world as if it were an infinite garbage dump that can absorb all the toxins and pollutants we throw at it. Nevertheless, the pathology of addiction is a fascinating one. As individuals, or as a collective, we dance from elation to depression and self-loathing with the subconscious knowledge that the party will crash and burn sooner or later. But while it’s raging, this party can be awfully exciting.
Alberta Tar Sands: The biggest damage to nature is usually done far away from the teeming masses of the urban centres.
In this brief segment of Examined Life, Slavoj Žižek talks about the self-induced deception of our time – that “all this disappears” – all this being shit in the toilet, garbage in the dumpster, etc. In my article about the impending decline of oil production, we see a similar self-induced deception at work – the idea that we will somehow – miraculously – always find sufficient energy sources to power our current economy.
The Human Resources manager would say that the safest bet in this day and age would be to trust the bank with 10% of your income so that at 65 years of age you may retire happily. But one could argue with equal credibility, I think, that the safest bet would be to say, “Fuck the banking system” – that gang of crooks who brought us the recession (Goldman Sachs is under investigation for fraud now, ha!), and fuck the Canada Pension Plan and Social Services, etc. Yeah, fuck it all, and instead, invest in the tangible fruit of Mother Nature. Don’t have an RRSP, don’t go to an urban “adult living community.” Buy a farm close to a source of fresh water – a brook, a great river, a lake – with ample forestland in the vicinity so that you may burn log fires in the hearth. Learn how to grow vegetables and how to cultivate a small orchard, learn how to repair bicycles and how to darn your socks. Give a middle finger to the system entirely.
For the most part, though, I resist the prospect of living off the land, because – like a good many people, probably the vast majority, in fact – my concept of self has been built within the logic of our current mode of existence. And therein lies the tension of any reasonably socially aware individual living nowadays. How is one supposed to negotiate the tricky balance of investing in the now, with the almost certain knowledge that the now is an illusion? That it is a form of society-wide madness…
This is what makes 2010 a depressing but also exhilarating time to live in. In the future, we will almost certainly have to invent a new purpose – not just for living – but for our own consciousness. Because it isn’t Mother Nature or the inexorable law of the market that magically bestowed on us the pathology of addiction. We addicted ourselves. We got used to the idea of expansion, of a world constantly growing, of a world always magically giving us more of everything. Growth became the central belief system of any individual living in the Western world in the 20th century and beyond. Fifty years ago, it would have been entirely logical to invest in a pension and in a suburban house and in a trust fund for my eventual progeny. But now the logic of those choices are open to debate, because this form of life was only rendered possible by an extraordinary and unique confluence of moments in history – moments that will not endure: relative peace in North America and Western Europe, the ubiquity of cheap oil, and the timely intervention of technology to harness that oil to ephemeral blessings such as the Green Revolution, heart transplants, the social welfare state, etc.
To be relatively well-adjusted in the future, we’ll need to unleash imagination. We’ll have to imagine reasons for optimism, for benevolence, for love, in a world that isn’t growing, but quite possibly shrinking. We’ll imagine reasons for happiness that aren’t based on giving out goodies at Christmas or flying out to visit the family in Omaha or buying a tricked-out Honda Civic. We’ll imagine what we might give our children when our resources to do so are a fraction of that enjoyed by our parents. We’ll imagine, not a three-bedroom house in a quiet suburb, but quite possibly a shack in a copse of trees surrounded by – I dunno – wolves and bears!
Many of us might live in this imaginary realm long before the realm of reality catches up with it. And perhaps to do so is just as crazy as what anyone else is doing. Nevertheless, I plan to keep on doing it. Because what I’m trying to imagine is myself freed of addiction and the roller-coaster ride of elation, depression and self-loathing that addictions entail.
This news story seems a bit of a big deal. The US strategy headed into November’s climate talks in Mexico has been leaked to The Guardian. In it, there is fairly little doubt that the United States is not committed to significant cuts, and moreover, wants to foist the lacklustre agreement reached in Copenhagen on the whole world. This is example #1938, I believe, of how Obama says one thing and does another. Of course, Canada will no doubt be right in line behind its buddy.
My article about peak oil, which includes an interview with James Howard Kunstler, is now online.
If you’ve ever driven or been driven somewhere, used a plastic container or its contents, eaten the produce of a fertilized field, purchased goods transported by airplane, truck or boat – in short, if you’ve done anything except live the life of a feudal peasant, you have been benefitting massively from oil and its derivatives. Just a few of our favourite oil products include gasoline, diesel, naptha, kerosene, ethylene, propylene, benzene, ammonia, methanol, plastics, synthetic fibres, synthetic rubbers, detergents, and chemical fertilisers.
“Life as we know it today would be extremely difficult without crude oil and its by-products,” declares OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries).
In The Long Emergency, a book I remember making a small media storm upon its release in 2005, author James Howard Kunstler invites us to imagine a world in which oil supply is highly contested, and eventually, a world in which oil might no longer be readily available at all.
Read the rest at the warehouse.
I’d say this is a pretty accurate summary of all that ails the Federal Liberal Party. I rarely read Maclean’s, but this time, Andrew Coyne’s article made me glad I did.
It really is a head-scratcher that a political party can be so “listless” as Coyne puts it, especially in light of all the exciting and radical new ideas that are surely merited right now. Canada needs a radical new economic plan that will completely curb and reverse our dependency on fossil fuels. We need to totally re-orient our foreign policy so we are no longer America’s little imperial buddy. We need massive decentralization – not to the provinces – but to cities and rural municipalities, so that citizens are empowered to tackle their local problems. We need a massive clean-up of corruption, which is endemic – especially in Quebec. We need to chart an alternative to economic growth, because left untended, growth — ironically — will shrink human civilization out of recognizable existence within our lifetimes.
At least that’s what I think!