Only connect. This is how we make meaning,
This is how we learn to think as Nature thinks.
One night, just after moving to California in 1976, as a young man fresh out of college, I had a vivid dream. In the dream, I was driving my VW bug on an isolated stretch of highway when I saw three mushroom clouds rising on the horizon. Terrified, I pulled off the road and entered a clinic where I found myself aiding sufferers of the nuclear fallout. I was there for some time before I decided to leave, worried that I myself might become sick from working so closely with the patients. I next stumbled across some long-haired young men sweating in the sun, hand-building a small but sturdy wooden bridge across a dry creek bed. It was hard work. One guy had his shoulder wedged against the bank, straining with all his might to get a good fit with the bridge support against the side. The guys looked askance at me and complained, “Remember when we saw you last and said the next time you see us it will be too late? Well, it is…”
This dream comes back to me from time to time and I continue to reflect on its meaning in my life, “dreaming the dream onwards”, as the Jungians would say. It remains a little haunting. It still provokes me to ask some disturbing questions, all these years later. Do mushroom clouds “on the horizon” warn of apocalypse still to come? What is the meaning of the clinic and the people I am caring for? What is the disease I am afraid of contracting? What does it mean to leave there? Who are those long-haired guys, and what is the meaning of the “small but sturdy wooden bridge” they are building? And what is with the dry creek bed? Why build a bridge across that? Why are they angry with me? What difference could I have made? Am I partly responsible for this awful state of affairs? And it’s too late? Well, if it’s too late, why bother?
Thirty years ago I wondered about this dream in the context of the nuclear threat.
My M.A. thesis in Psychology was titled “Saving the Bomb: An Archetypal Look at the Nuclear Threat”. It is easy to forget how tense things were back then. It was a time of MAD (mutually assured destruction) as the stated foreign policy position of both the Soviet Union and theUS. President Ronald Reagan joked on air “We begin bombing in five minutes…” Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Nuclear Freeze, SoNoMore Atomics, etc. Remember? In my paper I hypothesized that the bomb was an image of death, and the “ultimate limit” to all our fantasies of growth and materialism. At that time I was grasping for the words to articulate what was really just an intuition, a sense that this growth just could not continue on the same way in the future. How could it? There was just too much, too fast, and everything at an ever-increasing rate. “Future Shock”. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but like many of my generation experiencing a kind of spiritual malaise, I knew something was out of balance, even if I couldn’t rationally explain it. Was the bomb some dark “cure” for this overgrowth that really is overkill? Something had to happen. Nothing grows forever, does it?
One day, twenty plus years later I heard a snippet of an interview on a Santa Rosa radio station where the speaker posited the possibility of homeless people squatting in San Francisco International Airport, because the airlines had gone broke after there was not enough fuel to fly them anymore. It’s interesting to note how in this information age so much comes at you, and so little of it really speaks to you. Well, this spoke to me. I can’t remember how long it was after hearing that sentence on the radio that I sped to the bookstore, but I’m sure it was that same day. The speaker was Richard Heinberg, and the book, of course, was The Party’s Over.
The book’s thesis about Peak Oil was so simple, its implications so obvious. I have not looked at the world in the same way since. From then on I could not help but imagine disturbing images of the world as it might appear “post peak”, as fossil fuels decline. My head became filled with new questions. Driving by the neatly mowed and nicely watered grassy median on my way to work I wondered “Who is going to mow this when there is no gas?” Will the streets be lined with abandoned cars? Where will my water come from when the diesel pump onSonoma Ave.dries up? Who will take my garbage, how will I dispose of my sewage? Where will my food come from when fossil fuel fertilizer becomes scarce? I saw all the millions of plastic things surrounding me with new eyes: my plastic razor, my keyboard, every single container in my garage and on the store shelf. It went on and on. I looked at a map of theUSand it seemed as if all the roads and highways were like drying-up blood vessels and capillaries in the human body that would lead to the death of the country—our fossil fuel life-blood drying up. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “millions of people are going to die!” I looked at my beautiful little boy and wondered if he might be one of them. Not only did I wonder if he would ever drive a car, or fly toEuropeand explore it as I had as a youth, but I wondered, “Will he survive?”
We made it through the nuclear threat, (so far, thank God) but now, here it was again, the image of an ultimate limit, not apocalyptic in its suddenness, perhaps, but far more certain, in fact, inevitable. Someday we would run out of fossil fuel. This was an inescapable fact. Someday sooner, perhaps very soon, this “running out” would start.
Peak Oil, of course, isn’t so much about “no gas” as it is about the consequences of a never-again increasing supply of fossil fuel. This is why it made such sense to me. Here, for the first time is the limit I wondered about years ago. Things were out of balance because the supply of fossil fuel made available to humans was always increasing. Our life was built on more cheap energy, all the time. The pace of modern life was always increasing because there was always more energy being pumped into it. It’s as if the whole twentieth century is one big algal bloom, economies, population, industrial production, transportation, all increasing without a second thought, because it could, because it had to. After a couple of generations that knew no difference, the whole of the civilized world came to expect this condition of unending, ever increasing growth as natural. If anyone thought to say “Slow down” or even “Where are we going?” they were looked at as if they were crazy. Why would anyone want to slow prosperity? The standard of living of the whole world was increasing, what is wrong with that?
There was, of course, one big problem: out of control growth, like cancer, was killing its host, the earth. Irony of ironies, Peak Oil, so potentially devastating for our industrial culture in this limit to further material growth and population might just prove to be the necessary cure for our suffering earth.
So here I am, along with so many others, with this new awareness, struggling with the question, “What to do?” Though I clearly see the implications of Peak Oil, I remain a cautious and conventional person. I am a husband and father, a suburban homeowner and a high school teacher. I read about others making great life changes in the face of Peak Oil, and am humbled by the courage of many of my peers. So, what do I do? “Buy gold!” “Sell that house, before it loses all its value!” “Move to the watery Northwest!” “Join an intentional community!” “Solar Panels!” “Rainwater Cisterns!” “Learn how to shoot!”
Years ago, when I was a prayerful young man, I would pray for two things, the wisdom to know the right thing to do, and the courage to do it. Am I condemned now to sense what is going on, but not have the guts to make the big changes appropriate to my vision of the future? This is a particularly touchy subject in the Carhart household, for family and friends who know me well attribute my interest in the subject of Peak Oil as “Doug’s Apocalyptic Thing”, and remembering my years of anguish struggling with the MA thesis, look at me with patient understanding and wait for the subject to change. It’s never a popular Thanksgiving comment is it, to wonder out loud, “I wonder how many gallons of diesel it took to ship these cranberries here today…”
So, I struggle privately with what I should do. Money limits some options. I struggle, like most all in the middle class, just to make ends meet. I cannot sell my house and move toWidbyIsland(or wherever) because my house, like so many others, is underwater. I have no money to buy gold, let alone put in a cistern rainwater catchment, solar panel, or grease conversion kit on my diesel VW.
So then, what is my work in these times of such fundamental change? Well, I am a High School teacher. That’s what I do. I have four classes full of longhaired (and not so long-haired) young men and women. I want to give them a sense of purpose and meaning for their future. But how do I when I myself remain so pessimistic? Dare I say that I think they will be riding horses or bikes to work when they are my age? Dare I utter “fifty million farmers” and all that implies? Dare I share the fact that the earth can only support about half its current population without fossil fuel fertilizer to grow crops? As their teacher, how can I inspire hope when I feel so hopeless?
So I remain careful in what I say to them. One of he most influential commentators on the nuclear threat, Robert Jay Lifton wrote of “Psychic Numbing”, describing the kind of “desensitized” attitude people must affect in the face of overwhelming threat, like the nuclear threat, and now, perhaps Peak Oil as well. He insisted the cure for this kind of numbing was to find an “animating relationship” to the problem. Empowerment. The problem is that my students, like 99% of all of us, remain in denial about Peak Oil. Understandably, they defend themselves from the reality of the situation with the whole range of current addictions: materialism, media, technology, drugs and alcohol, gang identifications, the social obsessions of adolescence, the current not so civil war between “Left” and “Right”, and so on. I don’t want to drive them further into denial by presenting them with my fearful scenarios of the future unless I can offer some empowering solutions to help them form Lifton’s “animating relationship” to the problem. If all I have to offer my students is fear and dread, it’s a good thing I am keeping my mouth shut for now. But, really, is my silence the best I have to offer?
So, I guess the real question is “What animates me and gives me hope?”
Perhaps it’s time to return to my dream and revisit those images with this new question in mind. Here’s what I think now. In reality, I am still isolated in the clinic of my psyche, nursing my fears about the dangers rising on the horizon. I am the patient there. The contagious disease is hopelessness. All hope is not lost, however, because the dream says that somehow I will find my way out of my isolation and hook up with other men hard at work. How that will happen, I don’t know. I just “find myself” there. And even though it’s “too late”, there they will be, determined and purposeful. But how can that be? If it’s too late, why bother? How can one muster that kind of strength and determination in a world where it’s already too late?
Well, if one world is ending, mustn’t another be beginning? Maybe “too late” refers to an old world already passed. Isn’t that world already gone anyway, with the mushroom clouds foretelling its destruction? If it’s too late to revivify the old world, (of what, materialism? consumerism? unending growth? profit?…) that must mean there is a new world already beginning, one full of new meaning and new purpose. Meaning and purpose that we don’t fully comprehend yet. This is why bridges must now be built, because a new world is coming to birth right before our eyes, and new connections needing our hands to make them are waiting to be formed. Bridges over ancient streambeds of long since evaporated wisdom and spiritual truth, archetypal waters from our preindustrial selves… Isn’t it really an act of prescience and hope to be building a bridge in anticipation of a truth that has not yet returned? What have we been thirsting for all this time really, that our material riches could not satisfy?
The bridge in the dream might provide an answer. Perhaps it’s a symbol of connection. We can agree that the modern industrial age has certainly severed our sense of connection to nature, and even to ourselves. Cheap fossil fuels gave us the illusion we could dominate, subjugate and use the natural world for our own ends, and in the process we forgot that we are a part of the world, not above it. It cut us off from our sense of our own natural selves and our sense of community with our neighbors. After 150 years of fossil fuel driven growth we have forgotten what this sense of connectedness feels like. Perhaps my dream says, “Prepare the ground for its return, build the bridges of connection. In the future this energy will flow again.”
This is not to say that the transition will be easy. The Jungians warn us not to “sweeten the image”. I’m afraid we are in for an awful, difficult time. In my dream it was very hard work to build that one sturdy little bridge. I still fear that there will be great social unrest and many deaths as the old world passes away. Is there any way around mass starvation? Will there be mass suicides as people grapple with their own sense of hopelessness. The collapse of unending growth as a dominant paradigm, is, after all, the death of a worldview that has been the whole reason d’être of the industry and economy of the twentieth century.
There can be no rebirth without the requisite death that precedes it, so a “Great Turning”, yes, but A Great Death, also. This is all the more reason why we need each other during this changing of worlds. As in all healthy ecosystems, the wider a person’s web of supportive interrelationships, the greater their chance of survival.
We all have our own way of building bridges. Some people organize, some join, some network very consciously, some are good “connecters” just by the power of their personality, some ask good questions, some research and publish, some build, some fight. There are as many ways as there are types of people, I guess.
So, what is my way? What is the bridge I should be helping to build? I don’t know, I guess the way I connect with others regarding this issue is still taking shape. Perhaps this little paper is my first informal reaching-out. Maybe I’ll walk over and show it to those guys building that sturdy little bridge over there, and see what they say. They sure look like they could use a hand…
Doug Carhart lives in Santa Rosa, California. He may be contacted at: email@example.com