A man once asked God to shed some light on the mystery of heaven and hell. God said, “Why not? First I’ll show you hell.”
The man suddenly found himself in an elegant, well-lit dining room. Many people were seated around a table set with a mouthwatering feast. The man thought God had made a mistake. He must have meant to say this was heaven, not hell. Where was the fire and the tortured cries of the condemned? Surely hell would not resemble a five star restaurant. Then he noticed that, in spite of the abundance of food, everyone in attendance suffered from desperate hunger. Their pale skin hung on protruding bones like wet tissue paper. Eyes receded into their sockets, clouded with the faraway look of prolonged agony. The man turned to God with a confused expression on his face.
“Keep looking,” was all the Creator said.
Each person held a spoon with a handle long enough to reach any of the fabulous dishes spread out before them. However, since the handle was longer than their arms, they were unable to reach their mouths with any of the food. Now the man understood: People in hell were doomed to starve in the tormenting presence of enough food to last forever. Like the chain that Jacob Marley dragged into Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedroom in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, these people must have forged for themselves—by their deeds in life—the horrible and useless spoons that would torture them in death.
“Now I’ll show you heaven,” God said.
Upon arriving there, the man was more confused than ever, for he stood in a dining room that was identical to the one he’d just left behind in hell. The table was spread with the same food, fine crystal, and silver—and everyone held the same long-handled spoons. Yet, one detail was strikingly different: Here, each person was well-fed. Their faces were radiant with health and happiness. Whereas hell had been draped with an atmosphere of despair, heaven was full of lively laughter and conversation.
“I don’t understand,” the man said to God. “How can heaven and hell be the same and yet so different?”
“Simple,” God said. “It isn’t the length of the spoon that matters, but how one chooses to use it. Here, each guest feeds someone else, not himself.”
Christmas has always been a good time to acknowledge the cold and darkness of the Winter Solstice—but to remind ourselves of the far, far more powerful nature of light and love. You needn’t be a Christian to be touched by the story of hope in the form of a humble baby born to poor parents in troubled times. The message—Peace on Earth!—transcends every pretentious limit we would place on it. For our part, Christmastime is when we traditionally think about what is on someone else’s plate, or under someone else’s tree, not just our own.
That point of view has rarely—if ever—been more necessary than it is now. In modern times, you’d have to go all the way back to 1941 to find a Christmas season as darkened by world events as this one. That year, the shock of Pearl Harbor was barely two weeks old. It was truly a liminal moment in the lives of millions around the world, a threshold of sweeping upheaval, change, and death. The fact that all-out war was imminent and unavoidable was obvious to all but the most accomplished optimists.
Sixty-nine years later, Christmas once again arrives in the choppy wake of events that are at least equal in magnitude to the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Actually, it’s a simple matter to argue that today’s challenges exceed those of the “Greatest Generation” by a large margin.) These days it is self-evident to the informed that there are bombs ticking in every direction, but two of them in particular finally exploded in recent weeks.
First, the International Energy Agency released the World Energy Outlook 2010, an annual report that analyzes energy trends in the coming years. In a stunning (and unapologetic) reversal of itself, the agency not only affirmed the existence of peak oil, it stated flatly that the peak of conventional oil production has already happened—four years ago, in 2006. That means that, from now on, the supply of oil that is easy to find, extract, and move to market will steadily decline—while prices inevitably rise. It is impossible to overstate the gravity of this assessment from an organization that has consistently placed peak oil—if it existed at all—decades into the future. For a more detailed analysis see this and this.
Second, the Federal Reserve finally bowed to pressure from the courts, and from Congress, and released a limited accounting of how much taxpayer money has gone into bailing out the world’s banking system—and who got what portion of the pie. Never mind that it shouldn’t have been necessary to force the data out of them, and what it means about the state of the republic that it was necessary, here is the number they grudgingly provided: $12.6 trillion in direct hand-outs and “other arrangements.” Twelve. Point. Six. Trillion—12.6 x 1012 dollars. That is eighteen times the amountvthat Congress debated and authorized ($700 billion). Much of this Noah’s flood of your money went to foreign banks. All of it is irretrievably gone.
Movie directors like to employ a camera trick that would come in handy right now to underscore this news. It is used to portray the wobbly-kneed vertigo a character feels when he or she suddenly realizes the jig is up, and the threat they face is orders of magnitude greater than previously feared. (Picture the demolitions expert called to defuse what he thinks is a homemade pipe bomb only to open the shoebox and find an encrypted ten-megaton warhead ticking down to zero.) On screen this is when the foreground races forward while the background recedes, and the world stretches sickeningly like spandex that is four sizes too small.
Unfortunately, in real life there is no director telling you by visual cues that you’ve reached a turning point in the drama. You have to figure it out for yourself, and few people have bothered to keep up with events well enough to do so. If America still functioned as advertised, the ink would have hit the fan by now, as journalists took off like greyhounds after the mechanical bunny at the race track.
Alas. That is not the world as it is. The main stream media have stridently ignored both of these detonations. So it is up to us to connect the dots. Here goes: a) Oil—the essential ingredient in all modern economic activity (including getting the family car to the grocery store and back)—is about to get much more expensive and difficult to come by; and b) any national treasure we might have spent to ease ourselves into these uncertain energy waters has been stolen in the night. Furthermore, the thieves have destroyed the dollar on their way out the door, making traditional recovery and replenishment on par with believing in pixie dust and perpetual bliss in Neverland.
On Christmas Day, 1941, our grandparents couldn’t wish the Japanese bombs back into the air. A new reality presented itself that they had to face and act upon. Now it’s our turn. Like it or not, life, as we have grown accustomed to living it, is coming to a rapid end. Some things about our immediate future may be brutally hard no matter what we do. But, the truth is, the difference between full-blown hell ahead and shared hardship and mutual support will always be a matter of choice. As present day social arrangements collapse around us, we will be left with an economic infrastructure that functions about as well as an oversized spoon. Many who’ve recently lost jobs and homes, have already discovered this fact: This way of living doesn’t work. We can no longer feed (only) ourselves as we were taught to do.
When I am asked what steps I recommend to be ready for what lies ahead, I always begin with the obvious: food, water, shelter, etc. It does no good to neglect personal preparedness while you pursue high-minded global change. In other words, if you can’t heat your own house in the winter of a crisis, the fact that you lobbied your utility company to buy some of its power from “green” sources doesn’t mean very much. That’s blunt, I know, but true. Make a list of the things you personally depend on, then under each one write the question: “What would I do if…” Don’t stop until you have answers for each one.
Yet, sadly, many people mistakenly believe that this sort of nitty-gritty preparation is the whole journey, when it is, in fact, just the first step. Securing your own basic necessities is the very least you can do—must do—to prepare yourself for the coming Long Emergency.
No, there is much more to preparedness than that. Next, you must set about making sure you have something vital to offer your community—not the one presently defined by political boundaries or tax districts, but the much smaller circle of actual people you live with or near. As John F. Kennedy once suggested, don’t think in terms of what your community can do for you. Imagine having to justify your inclusion in a clan of people when the burning political question of the day is how to fairly divide up the hardship of scarcity. Why should you get a share? What do you bring to the table that the community values and needs? Here’s a hint: It had better be something with a direct and measurable positive impact on collective survival, under conditions more challenging than anything you’ve ever seen.
The key word here, of course, is “collective”—a badly discredited word after years of capitalist triumphalism. Nevertheless, by helping to feed (or clothe, or heal, or shelter) the people you live with, you will gain access to all that they can do for you as well, each of you leading the other away from hell, if not into heaven. Contrary to the fear mongering propaganda plastered all over the TV, most people want to contribute and belong to something larger than themselves , and would if shown a viable vision of how it can work.
Yes, there is serious trouble at our doorstep. Yes, society is undergoing dramatic convulsions of contraction and change—right now. But we will make things much worse on ourselves if we fail to factor into our calculations the welfare of others, not just our own. We are only as safe as the least secure of our neighbors–period. Some people respond to that idea by building deeper bunkers. What would happen if we reached out instead? Genuine community may not spring up overnight, but a single act of one-on-one kindness and inclusion can begin to undo years of isolation and fear. One gesture of hope and trust can inspire people to lower their weapons and tear down long-held defenses. From there we might discover that we’re all starving to death anyway, attempting to feed ourselves alone. What would it cost us to give cooperation a shot for a change?
This Christmas it is no longer good enough to mouth a few empty words about “goodwill toward men”. It is time to start living it on purpose and out loud, learning to love and care for each other like our lives depend on it—because they very well may. After all, that’s what the baby from Bethlehem grew up to say.
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Energy Bulletin is a program of Post Carbon Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the world transition away from fossil fuels and build sustainable, resilient communities.
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