Wednesday, July 9, 2008

You Crazy Optimist


Two years ago I began this column, thinking The End of the World would always be fun. The web-postings of survivalists, religious wacko-bongos, free-market fundamentalists, and paranoid old farts would always provide something amusing to write about. And there wasn't much chance their apocalyptic scenarios would come true.

For example, as I write a person claiming to be a Mt. Wilson astronomer is saying that a minor star is traveling through the Oort Cloud. It's kicking comets and Pluto-like objects and abandoned Borg starships out of orbit, and 600 of them will smash into and destroy the Earth in 2010. That's well before the Mayan apocalypse of December 21, 2012. The Mayans got trumped on this one, although if you got in a time machine and went back to the Yucatan in 800 A.D. and told a Mayan priest what was really going to happen, he'd say, "Like I care? We'll all be dead then, anyway."

But lately The End of the World isn't fun anymore. It's not only because George Bush, contemplating his place in history, keeps saying, "Like I care? We'll all be dead then, anyway." It's also because a good many intelligent and sane people keep saying that It's The End of The World As We Know It.

As We Know It should be a comfort that allows us to say things like, "and I feel fine," but the apocalyptic laundry list being put forward by these serious thinkers doesn't allow for much good feeling. The end of cheap oil, in particular, threatens to destroy the constellation of laws, ethics, rituals, and high privileges that we call American Civilization.

If you've spent time watching the Fox Network lately, you might think that destroying American Civilization would be a good thing, or that it's already happened. But when civilizations die, most of the people who depend on them die. A few people make out like bandits: people with basements full of AK-47s, oligarchs who buy up state property at pennies on the dollar, warlords who inflame ethnic or racial hatreds, or religious leaders who promise post-suicide salvation. But the rest of us suffer big-time.

Even if you plan on coming out on the winning end, a dying civilization doesn't offer much to cheer about. Two-hundred-dollar oil and intermittent electricity and a nose-diving housing market will not restore anyone to virtue. Lazy speculators will not suddenly find the value of hard work, nor lying politicians the value in truth. Robin Hood notwithstanding, thieves will not find value in charity. Torturers will not start killing people with kindness.

Instead of adversity bringing the best out in Americans, as has happened when our ethical, moral, and constitutional frameworks were intact, our psychopathic side, the side that cleaves to slavery and racism and genocide, will emerge.

These are strong words, especially in the face of the direction that America has gone for most of its history. But lots of things have changed in the last eight years, and our nation's traditional course toward forethought, toward decency, and toward rigorous self-examination is one of them.

No doubt you would like to make up your own mind on this issue, especially if your ticket to old age is Social Security, a functioning health-care system, or a stable currency. So here's a short annotated reading/viewing list from those smart-and-less-than-crazy folks who have deprived me of my happy-go-lucky stance toward the End:

Brazil [the film]: Terry Gilliam's dystopic and not-so-fictional vision of what a bloated bureaucracy does when it comes under threat from terrorism.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy's vision of post-Big-Mac America. Still fiction, thank God.

The Long Emergency: Non-fiction. Jim Kunstler, the author, is a bit wacko-bongo, but he's awfully convincing on what this country will face as soon as oil demand exceeds oil supply.

Nature Bats Last: An I-wish-it-were-just-opinion blog by Guy McPherson, a professor of natural resources at UA Tucson.

The Archdruid Report: A long-running ecologically-oriented blog by John Michael Greer. A comprehensive examination of what happens when a species outruns its energy supply.

If you get through this list and are still optimistic and don't have your fingers in your ears, yelling "Nyaah, Nyaaah, I can't heeaar you," I'd like to talk to you about a bridge. And not just the one that collapsed in Minnesota.

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