Keeping the Lights On: What Choices Do We Have

As “modern Americans” we expect at least the standard of living we learned to live with while growing up–if not way better than that. I can’t think of any group of adolescents that would accept the notion–much less strive for–having LESS, and maybe far less than their parents’ upbringing has made them believe is their entitlement. We want more, better, faster, cushier. It’s the face of human nature, though perhaps not its most flattering profile.

I think about this necessary and inevitable near to mid-term future downwardly-mobile shift–in all likelihood a rapid Great Depression-like decline–that will at some future time take place.

Our over-built over-shot and toxic economy goes one step too far and the house comes tumbling down. While we urgently need to get back to living within our and the planet’s means, we will not en masse make this downward move on our own unless forced by external pressures–that we have made possible by a long series of very poor household management decisions. Climate chaos is chief among these bad “choices” we’ve allowed to persist well beyond the time we could no longer say “we didn’t know.”

Sadly, that one unfortunate just-at-the-wrong-place generation of middle-aged adults (could it be todays ?) will see a significantly austere belt-tightening because we’ve reached political and financial gridlock against a thousand interlocking issues of insurmountable complexity.

There may be communities–especially inner city but also suburban and “helpless rural” communities that can’t feed themselves during the weeks or months of emergency recovery. And such emergencies occur more and more often over this uncertain bridge between political and economic ways of dealing with earth-and-people matters.

I think about this, pointing the finger at myself. What are YOU doing, Fred First, to walk your talk about living simply, cutting back, living with less? While many of us make the effort to recycle, change to more efficient light bulbs and maybe drive more efficient cars as few miles as possible, all these actions, while worthwhile, do not hit to the root of the matter.

Today’s way of being in which you and I are enmeshed and our brains are programmed after every three minutes of TV depends on  our turning  a blind eye at the waste or pollution impacts of our consumption. That would be bad for business, one party says. The economy is driven by consumption and growth. The bigger our footprint, the better. To correct this, only the very few radical dystopian pioneers will sell everything and live in a hollow tree. Some of them live in forests in Floyd, most likely.

And so I’m imagining a coming generation of children after the big melt-down whose grand-parents lives were shattered by it. The children of those wrong-place adults who were already born at melt-down came along knowing some of the “good life” from their earlier but not their later years.

Then THEIR children would be the first Americans to know nothing of the times of plenty, of unrestricted travel, of ubiquitous Internet, twelve grades of schooling for every child, and the luxury of energy slaves we once had in the Fossil Fuel era.

And this is when the new normal of human civil existence will be in its infancy. And it could very well be a better quality of living than the middle-class huge-footprint lifestyle of today, in many ways.

We need, it seems, the brisk slap in the face it takes for a sleepwalker to come to their senses. And we will likely get such a smack. And when we come to ourselves, if we haven’t buggered up the engines of the natural world beyond repair, we’ll find a better path towards sanity and well-being than the destructive path we’re sleep-walking along the edge today.

So I’m possibility thinking as I consider a fictional future. It does not have us entirely crashing and burning, but hitting a wall and waking up. Nature has a few things up her sleeve that will serve this purpose. But once we hit the rocks, the boat stays afloat. What will that world look like, ya think?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. After the wall, the great awakening; the transition to the simple, the local; no oil, no grid, no transport of goods or people, no measles (we don’t mix with the kids of those in that other hollow); growing our own pork so we can gnaw on the ham in the chill of winter; not exactly utopia, but the one billion or so of us left on this planet are finally at equilibrium, each using no more energy than that which daily falls on a precious few acres.

  2. I think a billion is about the carrying capacity of humans living at some modest level of consumption and use of topsoil, wood, water etc. Thanks for reminding me: I see an increased labor force entering into the task of “carbon farming” that includes, among other things, rotational grazing of smaller herds of ungulates. Instead of four-wheelers, they’d manage the range on horseback–a larger poop footprint (hoofprint?) but far less for energy (only one horsepower) and they can fill up their own tanks!

  3. The more I think about it, Fred, you are heading to a dystopian novel anyhow, so just assume the transition rather than explain it and get on with describing the new life with its implications. Or go the sci-fi route and think about a future without any nostalgia to the past and maybe there’s something out there that’s worth pushing towards. If you really want to just tell everyone how wrong they are in their present course, then give it up early because they won’t be listening or reading.

  4. Ok, a billion it is then. If that’s the sustainable energy budget, then your description of life in that age needs to be so compelling that the 7.2 billion here today will take action (hopefully somewhat ethically) to move in that direction or at least be willing to talk about it.

    (I hope you’re wrong about the billion number.)

    And you should consider how the one billion sustains itself without growing beyond that number and repeating the whole experiment. We’d need something in place that we didn’t have last time we were at a billion, whenever that was. And that something would have to be powerful enough to last for many millennia or we get to try it all again anyhow. Wonder what could fill that role?

  5. Con, I’m not sure which is more dystopian–the kind of future Fred seems to be envisioning or a continuation of the current trends (as if that were possible). James Howard Kunstler’s “World Made by Hand” series of novels depicts a society that is, in some aspects, dystopian, but in others is very appealing. What it will take to get the global population down from 7 billion to 1 billion, though, IS severely dystopian.

    Fred, your observation about ungulates reminded me of a comment I saw somewhere recently, to the effect that in the future (as well as up till the 18th century) much of the transportation system was fueled by hay.