Minimalism and Peak Oil

•January 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Last night I stayed up late watching documentaries. My husband, who prefers the uplifting genres, went to bed. I indulged in a double-header about Peak Oil and the inevitable decline of the Golden Age which we, as Westerners, now enjoy.

Now, I don’t want to be a doomer here. For the record, I’m of the opinion that humankind will evolve and ultimately thrive on the other side of the window of change we now face. But meanwhile, here we are.

Everything from food to clothing to heat to weekend getaways—all oil. Our economic system depends on cheap oil. Oil goes into the manufacture of almost everything, and oil gets it from Columbus, Ohio to my local Safeway. Oil keeps the ice cream cold and the French fries hot, keeps the power on, keeps the sitcoms coming. Let’s not even talk about where we, as Americans, would be without our cars. I mean I like my bike and all, but come on. So where will we be when the oil runs out?

I’ve been interested in the concept of peak oil in a roundabout way since I learned, in eighth grade Earth Sciences class, that everything we’re running on today is powered by fuel created 150 million years ago and there’s no more in the works. My teacher sat on the side of his desk in his tan chinos and took the time to explain the concept of non-renewable. My young brain sat up and then sat back and said something along the lines of, “Oh, fuck.”

Yes, that’s right. Like it or not, this absolutely gorgeous Golden Age in which I’ve spent my lifetime is going to end. Maybe in my lifetime. Probably in my daughter’s.

So does facing this obvious fact make me a pessimist? A conspiracy theorist? Does this mean I have fifty-pound bags of rice and a shotgun? No, no, and no.

One of the documentaries I watched was called Crude Awakening, which illustrated the state of decline in oil production that’s currently taking place. Another called Collapse was essentially a full-length interview with an investigative reporter named Michael Ruppert. He had lots of scary things to say, of course, but that’s nothing new. Flip to CNN any time of the day or night and there’ll be something scary going on. What I liked were his solutions to the problems that are already beginning to face us, which brings us all the way around to minimalism.

He did not recommend buying a gun, moving to remote territory, overthrowing the government or panicking and running in circles.

He recommended the following:

Grow a garden. Well, hell. I guess this means that after this past summer, when my feeble gardening efforts turned out so poorly that I swore off vegetables forever, I won’t be able to give up after all.  I’m going to try again this year—not only because of peak oil, not only to save the human race, but because I really like fresh garden lettuce. If the slugs don’t get it first.

Save the seeds. Another smart thing Ruppert had to say was to garden with organic seeds, not the commercially plentiful “frankenseeds,” and then to save some seeds. You know, like farmers did for millennia before Monsanto came along. He even suggested that seeds may be economically viable down the road. So save them, plant them, stash them, but make sure you value them.

Community is the key. So in the new, non-oil-powered world, we’re going to have to go ahead, take the leap and get to know our neighbors. For most of human history, survival wasn’t possible without a tribe. Might as well start getting to know our tribes now. I feel fortunate that I live in a small town where community is still a going concern, but anyone with a neighbor has a tribe. Maybe not now, when we’re all stuck in our cars, but in the future.

Start getting used to less stuff. And here we come to the marriage of minimalism and peak oil. Having more time allows for things like gardening and collecting rainwater and raising chickens; having more time also allows for community building. Having less stuff not only leads, indirectly, to more time, but gets us used to the inevitable contraction of our lifestyles. Someday we’re just not going to have all the plastic toys, shrink-wrapped food and convenience appliances that are currently available to us. If we get used to less now, it won’t be as big a deal. I know that I fear losing my job a whole lot less than someone who’s got a three-bedroom, two-car-garage spread in the suburbs. My life is easier to maintain. That’s the point. Simplification not only means less; it means easier. And when everything gets harder without cheap fuel, it’ll be nice to keep things as easy as possible.

Sure, sure, things could keep on cooking right through my lifetime, maybe through Maya’s, and maybe into her daughter’s. Maybe I do sport a streak of doomerism, I don’t know. But it sure doesn’t hurt to make every effort to resist the downward suck of consumerism and to remember how to live in tangent with the Earth. I mean, really. Who was ever worse off for growing a pot of tomatoes?

And if things do go south in a hurry, I’ll have the onions. Come on over and we’ll cook up some soup.


What is Authentic?

•December 29, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I love the word “authentic”. It calls up a sense of groundedness that appeals to me. It feels simple and solid, like a Shaker bench built of hand-stripped maple.

Unfortunately, this humble word has been pounded to a pulp by the mills of mass media. Magazine covers, neon signs and Oprah are all competing to be “authentic”. You can buy an authentic hamburger and sign up for authentic insurance and read about the latest authentic tv star, complete with pictures of her on her microfiber sofa in her sweats, with a cup of steaming tea. Like so many other otherwise great concepts, authenticity is being devalued by overuse.

The irony here should not be overlooked. The very media override that guides our mass culture–the one that makes true authenticity necessary for spiritual survival–is doing its best to erode it. Not on purpose, but as a side effect of half-assed popularity.

So please allow me to speak up for authenticity. Nothing could be more important in a land of plastic franchise than to be authentic, personally and in our collective activities. By this I mean to know yourself and to act accordingly. This is a time-consuming undertaking, one that requires courage to look within and then to speak out. If you don’t know yourself, you can’t speak your truth. You’ll be forced to pick up the latest ideas floating on the mired surface and play them off as your own.

I won’t tell you how to get to know yourself, other than to suggest some quiet and some solitude. You probably know this already, but I’ll remind you because quiet and solitude are themselves fairly rare birds these days.

I might not even get into the whole authenticity thing if I believed any less in its power as an antidote to commercialism. I have traveled the country extensively, and I’ll illustrate the difference. Authentic: the Wyoming mountain man who served fresh trout and shelled peas for dinner, right after touring my friend and I through his sewing room, where he spent the winters quilting. Inauthentic: Western-style hotel decor, replete with kitschy metalwork, pine beams and paintings of elk. Authentic: the southeastern Utah badlands, which stagger the imagination with their stark beauty, striking colors and soaring emptiness. Inauthentic: Disney World’s molded plaster-and-paint simulations, which are such a far cry from the real thing as to make one weep. Authentic: Monterey Bay, with its tidepools brimming over with scuttling sea creatures. Inauthentic: Sea World.

What’s the difference? The authentic people, places and experiences are just being themselves, as they are, without embellishments. The real article is always more enchanting.

To be authentic is to be real, to be honest, to be uncovered, to be direct. To be authentic is to be flawed and to be vulnerable. To be authentic is to be human, and to recognize and respect the world as it is.

We need you to be authentic. Sometimes it feels as if our society is being paved over with mass-marketed items and ideas. But really, I don’t think that mass anything can ever completely overwhelm the fierce blaze of a person who speaks from the heart. Just as the Romans could never quite conquer the British Isles, all you have to do is be a little bit beyond reach to keep your own counsel. Stay true to yourself and you dance just outside of the danger zone. You also embolden others to move toward the outer circles, where all the fun is anyhow.

So speak the truth today. Breathe deep. Smile at a stranger–or tell someone off, I don’t care. Just do it from the soul.

My Superpower: Trash Can Girl

•December 28, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I have discovered I have a superpower. It doesn’t allow me to fly, see through walls or stretch my arms long enough to reach the remote without getting out of the chair, although all of those would be nice features.

No, my superpower is the ability to throw things away.

Don’t smirk, now. It is much more difficult than you may think to throw things away. For example, I have two huge Rubbermaid boxes full of old papers and photos of people no one knows that came from my grandmother. They were given to me because no one could throw it away. (Even I can’t throw it away. Heirlooms are Kryptonite to Trash Can Girl’s superpowers.)

Trash Can Girl is also desperately needed in the following situations: the VCR no one can operate anymore, even if we had a single VCR tape left in the house–Trash Can Girl! The entire drawer full of scrawled, unfinished “books” Jordan made when he was five and six, now devoid of charm–Trash Can Girl! The shredded towels jammed in the back of the closet that trail streamers of fringe and smell like cat pee–Trash Can Girl, we need you.

My mother-in-law, who lives downstairs, is the Goodwill Addict. We are arch enemies. I have no powers in her house, but once she has reached capacity and starts filling my house, Trash Can Girl goes into action.

(Recyclers and others faint of landfill heart: Trash Can Girl will return as many items as possible to Goodwill. Thus she may keep the balance of power righted.)

Yesterday Trash Can Girl really broke out the cape and goggles. Last year Maya moved back in to Jordan’s room because they like to sleep together and her room became the dreaded “back room”–you know, the one where you can “store” things. (Note: if all you can think to do with an item is “store” it, that is a job for Trash Can Girl.) We decided to clean out her room so we could get her bed back in there. It was an innocent plan.

By the time this mission was accomplished, Trash Can Girl and her trusty sidekick, Reluctant Husband, had carried about twenty boxes down to the basement for the post-snow yard sale and had filled the back of the pickup with fourteen bags of garbage. Fourteen! Bags! Of broken, useless, crushed, unnameable, mostly plastic crap. And all of this filling the living space of my two children.

Trash Can Girl’s real power is not just the throwing away of broken plastic stuff. It is the recovery of breathing space. My kids are stoked about their rooms now, because they have, you know, room. Shelves of stuff no one recognizes is suffocating, and until yesterday we could hardly get the kids to go in their rooms. Last night they wouldn’t leave them.

So, cape fluttering, Trash Can Girl leaps away to find another overstuffed closet, groaning shelf or knickknack cabinet. She’ll be back soon.

Scary Things and Other Reasons For Living

•December 27, 2010 • Leave a Comment

In September 2007 I did one of the most frightening things I had yet done in my life. I quit my job.

Sure, I’ve quit jobs before, but this particular job was as tough to leave as a troubled marriage.  I worked as a 911 operator along with a small yet fierce crew of people who were hard enough to hear the county’s most ungodly stories and still soft enough to care. The hours could be horrific and sleep was for the weak. The ghost crew that runs the 911 system (probably everywhere) is little understood and almost never thought about, except of course when you need to dial 911, at which point you’re hardly considering the person answering the phone. Suffice it to say that 911 operators are tough but not brittle, kind but not kum-bay-yah, intelligent, and fueled by dark humor. A worthy crew.

On top of that, the benefits were incredible: health, dental and vision for my entire family; overtime pay; a pension plan. Job security. Cool jackets with our logo emblazoned on the breast.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I need sleep regularly, have a heart as soft as butter, and am hopelessly kum-bay-yah. Somewhere along the line I started to get the idea that maybe I was in the wrong line of work. This may have been when I started having dizzy spells when I pulled into the parking lot. Or maybe it was the migraines. More likely, it was the anxiety that began as a low hum a few years into the job, only to gradually increase to a shriek so loud I could hardly hear over it.

In any case, I eventually knew I had to quit.

And do what, exactly? Well, it turned out that when I finally got the nerve to put the headset down for good, it was to go into a thrilling career as a janitor. I kid, a little. Really, I decided to build up the tiny cleaning business my husband had been running for a few years. It was a huge relief to go from talking hyperventilating soon-to-be widows through CPR, to just pushing a vacuum cleaner. No one dies from a vacuum cleaner.

But that wasn’t the end of the scariness. Oh, no. All that vacuuming gave me time to listen more deeply to my heart. I finally recognized that I wanted more than to just be a nice person; I actually wanted to lay healing hands on people. Talk about kum-bay-yah. No wonder the cops were suspicious of me.

So I decided to study BodyTalk, got certified and started building a practice. To date I’ve done several hundred sessions and witnessed probably fifty out-and-out miracles.

But my pushy little inner angel still isn’t done with me. Now she’s got me going to massage school, building a collection of fiber art pieces for a show at Alley Cats in March, rebuilding my blog habit and taking on some big challenges for 2011 (more on that next time). Will she ever be done with me?

God, I hope not. Because doing scary things is what makes life fun, vital, vigorous. It gets the adrenals going and flushes all those sedentary toxins. I thrive on doing things that are risky–things that expose me, at the very least, to head-wagging and I-told-you-so’s (got a lot of those after leaving the dispatching job, let me tell you).

Security is important. I love the Everett Bogues of the world, traipsing about with their laptops and backpacks, but I have a family, life insurance and a car. I’m all about paying the bills and keeping my Netflix subscription (streaming Netflix. Crack.)

But without the scary side, security rapidly becomes suffocation. Every now and then you just gotta open the windows and throw everything out on the lawn. Get bold. Do what your heart insists upon. Give up the big bucks for the vacuum cleaner…or whatever other unlikely next step is staring you in the eye.

You probably have a pushy angel too. Don’t make her work too hard. She might overcompensate and make you go sky diving.