Tuesday, November 23, 2010

the life you save

"I told you you could hang around and work for food," she said, "if you don't mind sleeping in that car yonder."

"Why listen, Lady," he said with a grin of delight, "the monks of old slept in their coffins!"

"They wasn't as advanced as we are," the old woman said.

--Flannery O'Connor, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"

Listening to right wingers and libertarian ideologues carping about the evils of government, it occurs to me that limitations on human behavior are ultimately imposed by the government of the earth herself.

We might fool ourselves into thinking we have some inalienable right to fly back and forth between San Francisco and New York, until the price of jet fuel places the illusion out of reach and we discover that nobody disobeys the law of gravity for very long.

Expanding the idea of natural restraints on behavior gives a glimpse of where our fast and loose relationship with the planet has taken us. "The sad reality is that we are in danger of perishing from our own stupidity and lack of personal responsibility to life," says environmental activist Bill Mollison.* "If we become extinct because of factors beyond our control, then we can at least die with pride in ourselves, but to create a mess in which we perish by our own inaction makes nonsense of our claims to consciousness and morality."

The ecosystem, however, might be the last element of life to fail in the systemic collapse that's coming already started. Even now the flatlined housing market and paralysis of the banks shows that our system of money, wealth, and value assignation is in a process of slow collapse. The banks, their vaults choking with enormous piles of the rotting corpses of collateralized debt obligations, are insolvent zombies primed to set off the next phase of the Great Fail. The crisis most likely won't happen all at once, but will occur piecemeal and spread out over years or decades.

After the money system has failed, the next meltdown will necessarily occur in all systems of production and distribution, and our pretensions of maintaining an overseas empire will end. If those things happen soon enough, we may be able to avoid the most deadly consequences of our industrial-age consumptive lifestyle and our abusive relationship with our mother, Terra Bella.

But no matter how that turns out, we're now definitely already down the rabbit hole of Jim Kunstler's Long Emergency. And as it happens, Kunstler devoted some space this week (Kunstler.com) answering criticisms of his negativity, his supposed absence of a "positive vision" and his supposed failure to "offer solutions." But it's hard to be sunny and cheerful about systemic collapse, and Kunstler proceeds with more of a "forewarned is forearmed" attitude. For starters, after the collapse of the money and banking system, money will once again be hard, and legal tender will consist of silver and gold. Other than that, billions of exchanges now involving money will happen on the basis of barter. These kinds of conclusions are commonsense.

Over the longer run, Kunstler says, "Basically, we're looking at a re-set to a lower-scale type of economy and smaller, more local, autonomous units of governance," and tells how once our complex global distribution system is gone, agriculture and food production will return to the center of daily life for most citizens. These also are intuitive predictions, requiring only honesty and courage, not oracular vision. Massive changes in our daily lives are coming, and these days only the obtuse and frightened deny it.

And considering that our way of life has committed treason against the government of earth, the collapse of that way of life, hard as it will be on those who live through it, is ultimately a good thing. So save your silver dollars, and try growing a couple cabbages and maybe a rutabaga this winter.

*Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers' Manual. (Tyalgum, Australia; Tagari Publications, 1988), p. 1.

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