The United States of America was founded on the idea of Progress, that time moves and therefore institutions can move and, if we pay attention and fight hard, always toward the better. But it begins to appear that Progress might simply be too expensive if it’s possible at all. That in truth we simply were exploiting new resources, which have mostly run out. Now we speak of “sustainability.” Can we keep this up? What are we sustaining?
When Valier celebrates the Fourth of July, it is a matter of re-gathering the family and putting on both a feast and a fireworks show that’s pretty much like last year’s. We rodeo and pow-wow and speak of tradition, even though on the edge of town is a sci-fi forest of white windmills, tall as trees in Oregon. In the mountains on our horizon, the north half of what we see is Glacier National Park, but the glaciers are disappearing. Geologists say this is because we’re still in whatever we call the 10,000 years of warming that pushed back the sheet of ice that had crept down over the planet from the north pole -- it’s not finished yet. But it is what has “created” agriculture, cities, and civilization as we know it. Will it now roll on past the point of comfort?
We are misled by the fact that the “Little Ice Age” from 1600 or so to 1850 or so covers most of American history. It was the cold that has been the anomaly. Scientists debate whether there is any such thing as a “normal climate.” And a major influence on weather is the Sun, which has no problem with factory, engine and cow emissions. It may be that the current argument over global warming is not about the actual fact so much as between those who think we can do anything about it and those who are resigned to having to adapt. The drastic consequences of the Little Ice Age, the converse of warming, was the death a quarter to a third of the population of European nations through crop failure. It helped to drive immigration to this continent. If warming continues, we may also lose crops and people. Where will refugees go?
But this post is not about global warming, it is about our expectation that life will be a “steady state” event in which our efforts will bring about expectable improvement. That’s certainly what the founding fathers thought, but then, they thought there was a way to sail a boat across the continent, from Europe to Asia in a lucrative shortcut. This may become true if global warming keeps up and the Arctic Ocean dependably opens up. But maybe these days no one is really that interested in sailing ships between the two “old” continents. And Russia has been using that ocean for their radioactive discards for a long time.
If we think in terms of sustainability, then ironically we must think in terms of responsiveness to change. If we think of ways to change in order to sustain our lives, we must think of what it is that we’re sustaining. Many people will say national boundaries and a high living standard, but surely these are vulnerable early in the face of change. What are the deeper minimums of human culture? What may be lost? Taxes remain. The opera goes. Maybe the highway system. The family remains, but changes. It's already quite different.
As I grew older, realizing that I’ll probably live to something like 2020 (which has a nice echo to it, since my eyes are wearing out), and having thought more about the predicted apocalypse (for some) that will surely come or maybe is happening right this minute, I’ve played this guessing game often. I live a very modest life and have lately discarded more things. First was travel -- we’re all curtailing that because of the gas. Second was all those luxurious magazines -- which have pretty much crashed anyway. Third was movies -- which bounced back as DVD’s. The pretty terrific additions that I would like to sustain are the computer and internet. But I wouldn’t die without them.
Without gas for tractors and chemical fertilizer, the farmers here would be out of business. That means no wheat. Cows could persist.
Diabetes II, totally unexpected, means I would die without enough food or with the wrong kind of food or with contaminated food (which may have caused the problem in the first place). Without my pills and glucometer, without enough money for green food and meat, I would have one of those “mysterious” heart attacks that are the result of low-level diabetes. Without enough money for gas heat or if the gas delivery system failed in winter, I might die. There’s a little woodstove in the garage which, for short periods, could keep me warm enough (and cooking) to get through a temporary loss. In winter I would not have to worry about frozen food, which is the most serious loss if electricity failed. Light would depend on day length. I need a LOT of light to see now. I’d be back to paper and pencil instead of the computer and I’d miss the radio and movies.
The farmers would play cards in the evening. Their wives would have to give up their long-arm machine quilt stitchers.
When there was enough light, I would have plenty to read, if my eyes persisted. I have enough books for two lifetimes, all high quality and books I want to read. No one will try to take them away from me: there are not many folks in this town who read except for escapism. There are some who would take my food. Or preferably take guns, alcohol, drugs or tobacco. but I don’t any of those anyway. I keep a low profile so this would not be the first house raiders would hit. How can I think this way? A little over a century ago, this was the norm here.
My life has mostly been sustained by government (Multnomah County and the City of Portland), religion (the Unitarian Universalist Association), and art (Bob Scriver). I’ve seen all of them grow and change -- diminish and change. I’ve seen how much difference one or two people or an alliance can make in the systems as well as how larger social changes -- rather like climate change -- have swept it all away or washed up new things in a transforming sea change. Even here in this village change creeps in on all sides, some wanted and planned for and other times unfelt until it’s too late. I go to every town board meeting and take notes, because it’s so interesting. I watching for signs of the future.
There’s one other point of focus in my life: the Blackfeet rez. Not the tribe -- them, too, but I mean the complex of people who inhabit this world. They are survivors. The way they have survived is by changing. The question is whether changing enough to survive is really surviving. If you’re not who you were, aren’t you gone?