Rob Hopkins recently wrote that pessimism about the post-oil future is so common today because "a generation of men are coming to realise on some level that they are almost entirely unequipped to face the challenge that peak oil creates." In other words, once men begin to see the problem clearly, hopelessness sets in, because we know we lack the tools needed to respond.
"The skills one needs to work in the service industry, in sales, in IT, in the insurance industry, in a call centre," Hopkins wrote, "are of very little use when one starts thinking about what might follow that in a more localised near-future."
It's as if we've all been issued a palm pilot when what we really need is a screwdriver. To make things worse, most young men have never even seen this metaphorical screwdriver, much less know how to use one. It's hard to blame us for getting a little depressed when that starts to sink in.
"Does this resonate with you?" Hopkins asks. You bet. I think it is right on the money. I've thought so for years, ever since a startling personal experience opened my eyes.
In 1990 I (briefly) owned a small French bistro called Café Paris. I had lived and traveled in Europe for several years and fell in love with the more civilized European dining experience in general - and with crêpes in particular. So, against all odds (as well as sound professional advice) I used a chunk of my family's money to create a little bit of Europe in my home town, San Antonio, Texas. The café was beautiful, one of my proudest achievements. Of course, in the world of commerce that doesn't mean diddly. I knew I was in trouble right away when one of my first customers asked me with a thick Texas drawl, "What in the hell is a creepy?"
Sure enough, the venture soon failed. My personal economy collapsed, big time. I was 31 years old, in debt, with kids, and without an income. It was by far the most frightening thing I had ever experienced. Nothing in my modest middle class upbringing prepared me even for the possibility of this kind of crisis, much less the practicalities of how to handle it. Optimism and entitlement were untouchable articles of faith in the world I inhabited.
Weeks turned to months of unemployment, and I learned how much fun it is to dread the sound of the phone ringing because it's probably a creditor calling to ask (again) if I'd considered delivering pizzas to pay my debt. I discovered the thrill of being unable to sell my car because I owed more on it than it was worth. I mastered new math in which I could get a full-time job at the local 7-11 and only make one-third of the money we needed to survive. It was an exciting time.
One night the pressure got to me. I went outside to finally have it out with God. The sky was filled with stars - an unusual sight in the city - so I figured someone must be home up there. If you've seen the movie Forrest Gump - in which Lieutenant Dan, who lost both legs in Vietnam, lashes himself to the mast of a shrimp boat during a hurricane and screams at God, "Is that all you've got?" - then you know the mood I was in. I don't think I actually said, "Damn you!" but I came close. I went out to nail my list of grievances to the door of the universe: no job, no money for diapers, no retirement, no security for my kids.
Then something happened that probably happens more often than we know when people are under such stress: the sky spoke back. What I "heard" in response to my tirade astonished me, shut me up, and set the course of my life for the next 15 years (and still going). Now I'll share it with you:
The Voice calmly said, "If you believe that the future is just more of the same, a long highway climbing, uninterrupted, all the way to the horizon, then you are right; you'd better have a good job, health insurance, a 401k plan, and a college fund for the kids. You'd better know how to navigate corporate politics, the stock market, and the shark-infested waters of the IRS.
"But if you consider for a moment that the future is not more of the same, but is radically different from anything you've ever known, then you are going to need different tools and different skills to meet it. You might need to know how to live on much less, grow your own food, and overcome a hundred crippling consumerist addictions. You might need to learn a whole new way of thinking. The trouble you're in is not a bad place to start."
That was it. No thunder, no lightning. Just a little something for me to think about. I've been thinking about it ever since. I started looking at the world without my "the-future-is-today-only-moreso" bias and quickly realized the storm clouds were already gathering on the horizon, for all to see: peak oil, climate change, water shortage, terrifying vulnerability to technology, industrial agriculture, and a dizzying host of toxic waste products in our water and food supply. And that was just the short list. Our way of life was obviously not sustainable. Why hadn't I seen it sooner?
Well, now I saw it. I was convinced the Great Spirit had tipped his hand to me that night and given me a peek at what was coming.
Now, these days, if you have a conversation with the sky that radically alters your worldview, you're still on relatively safe ground so long as you keep your mouth shut and don't let it affect your life. No such luck. Since that night I have chosen the path of the lunatic, at least by common cultural standards. To my family's dismay I have largely ignored "old" skills and "obsolete" tools like mortgages and IRA's. Here are a few of the things I've pursued instead:
Don't get me wrong. Along the way I've come up with far more questions than answers and done a lot of wandering around in the wilderness. I'm just as prone to peak oil panic as anyone. But I've picked up a useful few tools that I'm happy to share with any who ask.
The most important new skill, in my opinion, is this: charting a course into the future we know we face really does require us to learn a whole new way of thinking. Knowing how to build a solar oven is great. I highly recommend it. But the real work is much more fundamental. We have to let go of the culture that's dying and then work hard to help midwife the one that's being born. If we can do that, the rest of the details are not so hard.
Quite a journey we've embarked upon. I agree with Hopkins; men in particular are vulnerable to feelings of being "useless" in the face of such change. But we'll get over it. We'll remember that small steps count, and that no one ever has all the answers. We'll wander around a while until we pick up the trail again. At the very least I can say I've learned to believe J.R.R. Tolkien's famous line, "Not all who wander are lost." Sometimes we are just looking for something we know must be out there. For tools; for knowledge; for other wanderers; for hope.