Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Friday, January 23, 2015

Inflection Point

Not just a moment, but a blinding flash of mental clarity overtook me 6 years ago when I was sitting at my computer listening to an interview with David Holmgren.  A couple of days ago I celebrated that milestone and took the opportunity to reflect on what exactly that experience meant.  And here's what I've come up with:

"Epiphanies" are amazing moments.  When you have one, it elevates and excites you, gives you a sense of renewed purpose, makes you feel in command of your relationship to the world around you.  And then, if it was a true epiphany, the work begins.  I mistook that flash of light 6 years ago as "enlightenment," when what it really was was an inflection point.  It didn't impart some superior knowledge to me, all at once, that would help me navigate the world in fine fashion.  And it didn't make me luminous, nor give me the ability to travel through time.

What it DID do was redirect my focus.  It gave me a brand new starting point, a new foundation, from which to explore the world and my relationship to it.  I was already an ecologist before that moment - it wasn't like I had to start from the angle of, say, a derivatives trader - but this was revolutionary, even to an ecologist.  My relationship with the universe would never again bear any resemblance to the form it took before January 21st, 2009.

Since that time, however, the nitty gritty of living that new vision, day-to-day, has formed the backbone and supervisor of my new ideology.  Several times I wanted to give it up, take a regular job, pay a mortgage and car payment for a normal house and nicer car, put the dishes in the dishwasher, take a hot shower the very second I wanted one, nuke some leftovers, adjust the thermostat and sit down to veg on some TV.

My life is nothing like that.  And it takes a not-insignificant amount of willpower to keep it that way.

The planet is groaning under the weight of fossil-fueled excess.  Swimming in embarrassing seas of garbage placed out of sight and out of mind.  Warming steadily, and yes, made worse by our sheer population and level of activity, whatever the background oscillation might look like.  Rising seas are not an issue to be addressed at some later, more convenient date, but something that is already displacing and destroying one island and coastal population after another.  Within a century sea levels will have displaced potentially half of the global population.  Where will they go?  What will become of New Orleans? Venice?  Miami?  Amsterdam?  Will those people move to north Georgia? The French countryside?  Utah?

A lot of those upland locales will be suffering from their own problems.  Increasing immigration and resource shortfalls notwithstanding.  In the southwest and mountain west of the United States, a tiny, and much hardier, fraction of the current population will get by in crispy desert conditions.  I'd be surprised if anyone is still even faking a plush green lawn.  Rain belts will continue to shift, making formerly reliable agricultural zones a lot less reliable.  Topsoil erosion will continue apace as farmers try to squeeze every calorie possible from their land to feed a slightly larger, if not slimmer, population, before human numbers begin to decline again.  The obese should already be morbidly embarrassed for their gluttony in the face of so much, again current, poverty and malnourishment.  Undernourished populations aren't something that technology and science are going to "fix."  It's an unfortunate state of affairs that will spread gradually across the planet for a long time to come.  This is already happening.  People need to wake up to the daylight reality of petroleum's decline, a global economy circling the drain, currencies on the verge of collapse, geopolitical upheaval, and a whole bunch of commodities that define the industrial way of life approaching a forced redefinition as "non-resources."  After all, if you get less out than you put in, eventually you're going to stop investing.  May take some stupifyingly long periods of time to sink in, but eventually it'll get tossed.  Ethanol comes to mind.

Again, I hope my language (and emphasis) makes the point that the decline we're dealing with is not some beast to slay off in the future.  The Baltic Dry Index, which measures the pace of global shipping, fell from 2200 to 800 last year.  Whatever the units, that's a steep year-over-year decline.  And it's not a glut of oil; it's demand destruction.  The average human on Earth is considerably poorer than they were a year ago.  They aren't buying as much stuff.  Industrial decline is inevitable following the peaking of global oil production, a predicament to be adapted to, not a problem to be fixed.  All the shiny alternatives rely on cheap oil.  Nuclear doesn't exist without an enormous government subsidy.  I'll let you ponder why any government would go to such expense.  Technologies like Oceanic Thermal, salt fusion, and so forth, currently being trotted out as new energy saviors, have been on the "Not Thermodynamically Possible" shelf for decades.  As John Michael Greer basically said in his post last week, let's at least come up with something novel if we're going to trot it out to bamboozle the masses for a little while.

But one thing that seems certain to me is that most people will come up with a darn good reason not to take any of this seriously.  We can blame it on the Russians, or the Ukrainians, or the Saudis, or the Chinese, or the Catholics, or the Baptists, or the "brown" people, or the "devil," or the referees at the Seahawks game.  Anybody, ANYBODY, so long as we don't have to bring our own lives under scrutiny.  We'll make up plenty of cloak and dagger stories about the "end times," and, to be honest, there's no lack of that excuse being utilized among the non-religious set, too.  "It'll be over soon, so it's not really my problem."  "We're special, so our apocalypse will be special too."  Yeah, and it'll probably be the end of the world as we know it, right?

Right.  Except that we'll still be here.  And energy will still be harder to come by every generation.  And still less food will make it onto the average Earthling's plate, regardless of address.  And still the climate will continue destabilizing.  It is OUR problem.  There's no easy way out, no quick and painless option, no rescue, nor rescuer.  But again, I'd bet my last dollar that most people won't listen, and fewer will act.  And that's why I keep doing what I'm doing.  It's not all going to fall apart tomorrow, or this year, or this decade, but the long slow collapse is already underway, and we need to have models of radically-lower energy households out there to observe and critique.  And we need the next gen innovators to live even LOWER energy lives.  I want people out there who make ME feel like an energy hog.  We need to be making mistakes now, while we can afford them, and sharing what we've learned.  And fortunately for all of us, there are countless people out there doing it already.  But we need more variety.  We need tons of different strategies, and approaches, and philosophies, and technologies, and folks willing to be weird.  This isn't a time for herding.  We need cellular adaptation - this works here on a small scale, let's try it next door, or the next county over.  Or this really isn't working, and I need to chuck it no matter how much I've invested in it.

What we definitely DON'T need is great master plans, or more government largesse, or singularities, or new world orders, or salvation from the great god Technology, or daydreams about population and affluence rising in lockstep, or this gadget saving the day, or this vaporware making the nightmare go away.

We just need to be still.  We need to stop doing so much.  Stop spending so much.  Stop making up excuses to stay comfy and ignorant.  The planet is already in the process of scratching off its fleas.  Don't tickle.  Don't bite.  Just be still.

Rant off.
Tripp out.


  1. You lost me right at the last there. Be still? Maybe just the wording? I thought you would say something about acceptance of the inevitability of things to come, and then taking steps ( "get off the sofa") to make life changes and reduce its impact personally, because the overall human system is not reacting rationally.

    Anyway, you should take some credit for your ripple effect in others for lower energy input. Readers and those who know you see what you have done and realize how far one can go. Yes, the bar needs to continually move, ( it has to!) but right now, I'd say you make a pretty good example for others to strive toward. I'm way behind, but making progress every year.

  2. Yeah, I wondered about finishing it off that way, but in my years of doing all this, the one consistency I've reckoned out is the need to be still. The need to give the planet a break from all our insane activity. Even the act of retooling in a "greener" way creates a lot of activity and expense. It's that voluntary simplicity versus voluntary poverty thing again, per Thoreau. "Simplicity" sells novel product; "poverty" doesn't sell much of anything. And it's that distinction that is both the hardest to "buy" and the most necessary. In my opinion. Does that help?

    I like the old Latin addage 'Festina lente' - make haste, slowly. Yes, there is an absolute ton of work to be done, and I certainly don't mean to avoid that. I go to bed whooped every night. But there are so many advantages to moving slowly in this regard that I can't avoid preaching it a little. It's hard for Americans in particular to see the value in acting more deliberately, and not just shifting their current level of activity from one lifeway to another. There is real behavioral innovation involved, and I think that is by far the most important aspect of transition.

    Thank you for the encouragement of your comment, by the way! That means more to me than you know. And again, it doesn't matter where we are in transition, so long as we are transitioning!

  3. Simplicity- one more concept that has been co-opted, twisted around, and monetized. I hear you there. One thought I do justify my actions with is that if fossil fuels and my one foot in the old world can speed up the transition to a low energy system, I am willing to do it. Example- when we put in the water capture swales in our field, we had the neighbor do it with his bulldozer. Won't be able to do it that way in 50? years, but it was done in an afternoon with a few gallons of fuel. The swales will last decades, if not centuries. I would not have enjoyed ( and may not be capable) doing it with a shovel. I will however, think some more on your admonition.

    OK, changing back to the original topic. My "epiphany" was in 1977, my junior year in college. I went to an engineering school, and as such, the student body was not typical for the youth of that time. We weren't growing long hair, protesting or going back to the land, or suffering existential angst ( or partying for four years). ( ironically, I was raised on a farm)

    As a group, we had totally bought in to the ever upward, ever better world of progress, driven by the technology we would help bring about. This group was the anointed, special chosen, we were smart, good at math ( the whole field now called STEM), a bit cocky, and of course sadly naive.

    So, one humanities class I took ( We HAD to take a few, to show how well rounded we were) was called world dynamics, and wouldn't you know, the second report to the Club of Rome was our main text. ( Limits To Growth, published 1972, was the first, Mankind at the Turning Point was the second, and even more damning, published in 1974) It was an eye opener for me, and seemed obvious, once I thought about it, but I did note that no one else in my class seemed struck by the looming threat, they just wanted to get their A or B, and get back to Calculus. Maybe my farm background gave me more of a gut feel for the web we are part of, not so easily felt by urban and suburban kids.

    Not sure how that prof got this class on the schedule, and I would love to know how many others he might have nudged. Anyway, the seed lay dormant for a (too) long time, but now I am finally trying to be part of the healing, part of the attempt to make the decline less painful.

  4. I can't imagine a better use for a few gallons of diesel fuel than using it to create water- and nutrient-harvesting swales that can be maintained basically in perpetuity by hand. So I think we're talking past each other a little bit here. That strikes me as extremely adaptive behavior compared to, say, buying a Prius.

    The fact that my last statement probably flies in the face of the voluntary "simplicity" folks hopefully finishes proving my earlier point!

  5. 'Folks willing to be weird.' I do love that phrase. I am just beginning to feel brave enough to start becoming one of those folks willing to be weird. Who knows what fascinating places that will take me?

  6. Hey Jo, I can tell you from a lot of experience as a faculty member in the weird department that it is absolutely worth it...best of luck to you!