Letters at 3AM

Things to come: part 3

Letters at 3AM
Illustration By Jason Stout

This series is based on five assumptions.

One: Global climate change may be drastic, catastrophic in places, but not universally catastrophic, forcing civilization to change but allowing it to continue. Some credible experts consider that view optimistic, but apocalyptic scenarios are paralytic. For the sake of the children, and for the dignity of the human heritage, do what you can while you can – and, as they said in the wild West, be game.

Two: In the next five to ten years, oil, upon which our way of life is based, will be scarcer and much more expensive. (Google "peak oil," read articles pro and con, judge for yourself.) The U.S. Department of Energy reports that Americans "will spend 18% more on energy this year" than last (The New York Times, Sept. 9, p.C3). That article cited a report that this winter "heating oil will probably cost 31% more and natural gas will jump 24%." Now the Department of Energy has revised that gas-hike estimate to 48% (USA Today, Oct 21, p.2B). (Natural gas generates much of our electricity.) How long can this go on without serious disruption and change? Not very long.

Three: Our present systems will slide from dysfunctional to untenable. The first response of many will be to throw up their hands and wail, but after wailing does no good we may rediscover that human beings have an enormous capacity for resilience and creativity. Many who've been neither resilient nor creative will discover they can be both, coming up with new living arrangements for practically everything, on a mostly local scale – which may be surprisingly interesting. To paraphrase the last line of The Wild Bunch, it won't be like the old days but it'll do. But it will be wild, especially at first. We will have to accept again what our not-so-distant ancestors never forgot: Pain is inevitable and, ultimately, security is not a human possibility.

There is no point minimizing the suffering and danger in store for most of us. During the transition to whatever will be, big cities will have an especially rough time, and nobody will have an easy time anywhere. History isn't a spectator sport, especially when history makes a massive shift. Nobody will be on the sidelines, and everybody will be needed. As a teacher I've often felt that we contribute to our children's aimlessness and angst by failing to tell them what's most important about them: that they are needed. The human heritage is a collective responsibility, it is in all our hands, and it cannot survive unless each generation accepts responsibility for its transmission. That, too, was something our not-so-distant ancestors presumed – it was, in many ways, the very air they breathed. We may breathe that air again, when we realize we have a new world to build, a new way of life, and there's nobody to build it but us.

Of course this will go differently in different places, terribly in some, better in others, depending on a more or less haphazard distribution of resources and resourcefulness.

Which brings me to my fourth assumption: Insofar as life can be consistent and reasonably safe, it can be so only in a tenable community – whether that community is a county of farms, a town, or a neighborhood. Our society has lost cohesion to the extent that it has lost community. Even the rebel, artist, trickster, loner, or shaman can only be genuine in relation to a community. Somebody grows the food the rebel eats, somebody else transports it, somebody else sells it, while the rebel's job is to show a society where it's weak, hypocritical, or worse – as the artist's job is to prove that beauty exists no matter what. We've lost respect for these mutual functions (which in practice have always been difficult, and will remain so). To rely on hope is passive, but to believe in possibility is to be open to what's out there. There is the possibility that, given the dire necessity of remaking the world, the dynamics of true community and the dance of contrapuntal roles may assert themselves and be valued. Maybe not happily, but genuinely. I don't see how we will survive otherwise. (As a species we're adept at horror, and we'll no doubt practice horror in our new world. I'll leave that for others to predict and invent. I'm a cheerful semiapocalyptic.)

Fifth and last of my assumptions: The unexpected always happens. That is the one unalterable law of life that I know. In ways little and big, bad and good, the unexpected always happens. Given climate change and oil scarcity, we're in for the unexpected on a huger scale than most generations experience. But we who crunch the numbers and try to find pattern in the data must remember that expecting everything to collapse may be as unrealistic as expecting everything to continue as it is. There will likely be a kind of dialogue of events, continuance answering collapse, collapse answering continuance – or, to switch metaphors, history will play a raucous, discordant music of simultaneous continuance and collapse, and we will hear (and perform!) chords of events, melodies of experience, unheard and unimagined by any of us.

I see the future as movement in two directions at once, not backward and forward but sort of up and down – which is, after all, the way one walks. Lifting the foot up, putting it down.

Down: To our children and grandchildren, many ways of the 19th and early 20th centuries will be more familiar than those of the late 20th and the present. The bicycle in the city and the horse and wagon in the country may become common modes of transportation; journeys between continents may again be by ship; homemade clothing, glass containers, mechanical metal appliances built to last instead of electronic plastic appliances built not to, local doctors not making much money but making house calls, people trading services, enduring summer heat and winter cold, and life a largely local affair – that may be a best-case scenario, but it's possible.

Up: The Chinese are serious about space travel, and they're the only ones with the money to do it. (They're sitting on such a money stash that oil scarcity will hit them more gradually than us. They're in a position to do what GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett suggests we do: "Use oil [now] to make the investments on the alternatives and renewables ... that can take the place of oil.")

There are many "up-down" possibilities, but let's focus on trains. With oil rationed to agriculture, essential services, and (inevitably) the military, and with personal long-distance driving and passenger flight no longer feasible – then, if the United States is to remain a continental entity (and it may not), the only answer is trains. Before 1945, an American could get on a train in, say, Clarendon, Texas, or Embudo, N.M., or Red Cloud, Neb., and go anywhere on the continent. Trains can run on anything: wood, coal, electricity, or, more productively, fuels derived from corn and sugar. There are many good arguments why grain and bio-mass fuels aren't practical for personal (automotive) transportation on a mass scale; but they're imminently practical for trains. We will need a crash program to rebuild our rail system with engines that run on grain-derived fuel. Last year we spent $455 billion on our military [60 Minutes, Oct. 2], more than the rest of the world combined. The U.S. can try to remain the military superpower (it will fail), leaving the rest of our society in shambles; or the U.S. can spend $200-300 billion of that money on rail (local and national) to retain its coherence as a society. Obviously, we don't have the leadership to make that choice now. But as things start to fall apart, and people are desperate for leaders who can handle the real world, such leaders might show up.

In fact, possibilities for rail are astounding. Seventy years ago, Germans invented a train technology called Maglev. Now Shanghai has the first Maglev train, on a short run – it works. Google up "Maglev," read a few articles. "Mag" stands for magnetic, "lev" stands for levitation. Magnets literally levitate the trains and, in a way that I don't understand, propel them. Maglev trains use no fuel. Emit no pollutants. They cost a lot to build but have no moving parts and thus are cheap to maintain. They are almost noiseless. They vibrate (according to the CalPoly.edu site) "just below the human threshold of perception." And they can go more than 300 miles an hour. In other words, over land Maglev is a viable alternative to flight. "Down," we're back to trains; "up," there's grain-fuel and Maglev.

Up and down – it's a way of walking into the future. We'll need to find many up-and-down ways. The transition is going to hurt like hell. The planet may be tired of us. But if it's not, we'd do well not to underestimate ourselves. Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz saw more horror than most ever see, yet he described humanity like this: "They are so persistent, that give them a few stones/and edible roots, and they will build the world." end story

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oil, trains, Maglev

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