By Sharon Astyk
In the last couple of months, several major peak oil activists have confided to me that they have had moments of despair. In each case, these were not ”doomers” or people who have long since thrown up their hands - instead, these are people making a difference, with viable plans for shifting the way we live, and they suddenly came up against painful economic reality - that the investments they’d hoped we [would] make, many quite modest - simply aren’t going to get made.
For many people who imagined peak oil as a steady build up in energy prices, or marked volatility, but trending upwards and leading only eventually to an economic collapse, the sudden shift into credit crisis is a crisis indeed - all of the signals that high energy prices were sending are erased now, and while demand is falling, so is the ability to invest in infrastructure.
On the other hand, since I never thought most people or governments would be able to make massive infrastructure changes, I’m probably less traumatized. And in the vast and traumatic mess that we are facing, I’m seeing some surprising signs of hope - not that we’ll magically reshape our society into the renewable paradise a lot of us would like to see, but that people are well, not acting like complete idiots - that they are responding to things fairly appropriately, even wisely sometimes.
For example, yesterday, NPR reported that the CEO of Walmart noted that people were spending a lot less - and most remarkably, they were saying how good they feel about not spending that money. In the context of a convention of American retailers, this was not good news. In the context of the human future, this news should have been trumpeted from the rooftops.
In fact, the people are turning out to be rather clever (as long as we don’t look to closely at SUV sales) - that is, even though every freakin’ economist and policy advisor, not to mention CNBC were lying to us and saying the crisis wasn’t much and if it was much it was practically over, Americans actually figured out what was going on, stopped spending so much, and started the hard and painful work of retrenching. Even at Christmas they managed to resist the increasingly plaintive calls of retailers to spend more money on stupid crap. It is easy to understate how radical this is - the people understood we were in a crisis that required a massive behavior change long before almost everyone else did. This is the sort of thing that restores faith in the value of democracy.
Meanwhile, in a speech, Barack Obama, who isn’t even President yet, actually used the “S” word - the one I’ve been begging people to use for years now. He called for sacrifice from the American people - and the response so far was heartening, as I expected - people think that this is being taken seriously, because, after all, they are being asked to help out.
Oh, and Obama is moving his mother in law into the White House with him and his family. Not only is this a really good thing for his kids, since the parents will be on the busy side, but it is also a damned good thing for the nation, which is filled with people who have been told over and over again that they couldn’t possibly live with their families - that doing so means you are pathetic and worthless, and that families are awful. And now they will have no choice - so seeing someone do it voluntarily can only help.
Meanwhile, gardening is booming - seed companies are topping last year’s records, and there are more and more people looking to food production as a strategy for weathering the tough times.
Nearly everyone I know who has spent the last few years talking about coming tough times is starting to hear shifts in the culture - people are taking this seriously, and that means that it is possible for many of us to find someone else in our neighborhood or community to share the burden with.
Now there’s plenty of awful news. The economy sucks. The situation sucks. A whole lot of stuff is going badly - this is not meant as mere cheerleading. But the point is this - on some level, we all know we’re probably on our own. And there are some real signs that ordinary people, left to themselves, are responding more gracefully and imaginatively than might have been expected. And that is reason for cheer.