I'd rather be Fred than dead

by Gene Miller, August 2010

Musings on the loss of faith in ever-lasting improvability.

On July 1, Canada Day morning, long before the dawn, I sat nursing a coffee outside a Fairfield convenience store. A highly spiced Chinese dinner the night before had given me vivid dreams and the small comforts of a short sleep; and I woke at 3:30 am to a diminished and horizon-less view of prospects—my own and everybody’s. Appropriately, the grey sky threatened rain.

Fred, the clerk who works the intermittently quiet graveyard shift, killed a few minutes with me outside the store. By appearance, he’s in his mid-late sixties, and the coffee was my first purchase under the new HST regime. When Fred quoted the new price, we exchanged looks. Sometimes, a look is all you need.

He said he had read recently in the New York Times a columnist’s assertion that the economic cataclysm of the last two years was “just the tip of the iceberg,” and that the coming times would produce a variety of consequential and unmooring events.

A lot of people have been talking and writing lately about a second economic collapse, an aftershock, a double-dip, a long slide, a sputter. Fred had a story about a plumber he knows who is “never home.” His wife works, they have three kids, and can barely make the mortgage and other household expenses. Fred shakes his head: it’s not supposed to be like this.

There are lots of plumber’s families out there—thousands, hundreds of thousands and, south of the border, millions. What’s the message? What’s the lesson? Inevitability, maybe. Cycles play out.

I mean, you can theorize, and you can paint word-pictures of an entirely different social order. (Hell, I fix the world ten times a day. Don’t you?) You can imagine the rationality of debtless-ness, of everyone living within their means, of a society in which folks, re-thinking the good life, might generally have less but be more full. But debt’s the shadow side of the economy (sanitized as “standard of living” or “quality of life”), and it’s a cornerstone of our life. You know what happens when you pull out the cornerstone.

Do you remember phrases like disruptive economies and creative destruction—armchair language intended to illuminate the spreading culture of innovative economic and technological transformation? They seem, well, not exactly quaint right now, but like strangely irrelevant intellectual indulgences appropriate to the fizz and conceits of more buoyant economic times, rather than the Appalachian realities of our own. Kind of like Christmas tinsel in March. Why, even that greatest of disruptive technologies, the Internet, has now been declared passé by the musician, Prince (no doubt, with social evolution, rather than royalty capture, on his mind). I rest my case. 

Friends of mine (I hang out with a crowd prone to worry) spend their time speculating where the next blow is coming from. Metaphors abound, one cupped within the other. Some are economic, some political, others ecological; but all are linked by a presentiment that a vast occurrence is looming—something disruptive in the ordinary sense of the word. The times seem, well, biblical and, not to make light of the deep recession, it shows how little it takes to upend our sensibilities. We live in times rich with doomsday scenarios made credible in part by our mood itself. Lester Brown, author of Plan B, has opined recently about the cascading consequences if the Antarctic ice shelf becomes unmoored, leading to an end-state in which a large part of the world’s grain-producing capacity in Asia could go under water and untold hungry millions might become climate refugees, fleeing with blind urgency to other still bounteous places. How’s climate refugees as a mot du jour? 

Vaclav Smil, renowned scientific futurist who is currently Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba and author of books with ebullient titles like Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years, pooh-poohs the uncertain outcomes of global warming (he believes anyway that the costs of adaptation, if necessary, will be easily absorbed within the economies of the wealthy nations) but ascribes “100 percent certainty” to the prospect of an overdue pandemic that will take the lives of some fifty million. One door closes, another opens.

Margaret Wente, writing in The Globe and Mail (“The Man Who’s Tutoring Bill Gates…”), quotes Smil: “We’re going to be a fossil-fuel society for decades to come.” She continues, “Prof. Smil methodically sets out to show that the facts do not support either the romantics, who think we’ll be saved by wind turbines, or the techno-optimists, who think that electric cars are right around the corner….We need to understand that the transition from fossil fuels will be complex, protracted and nonlinear, and will require enormous investments. ‘Wishful thinking,’ [Smil] writes, ‘is no substitute for recognizing the extraordinary difficulty of the task.’” Wente adds: “North Americans are the energy hogs of the world…our lifestyles are ruinous.” She again invokes Smil: “Most of the energy in North America is just consuming…. We could live affluent lifestyles with half as much energy. Are people so unhappy in Kyoto or Lyons? Is it such a terrible punishment to live in Bordeaux? If the world wants to replicate the two biggest wasters in the world, the US and Canada, there is no hope for anybody.” But in response to Wente’s question, “What is the likelihood that people will cut back voluntarily?” Smil states “Very slim.”

So, back to the future. There is, how can I put this, a diminished appetite for the future, a tarnished belief in rosy prospects. We seem to have been culturally bred with a faith in improvability, and when both conditions and portents tear at that faith, the results are ugly. It’s as if people have skipped a few chapters in the book and don’t like where the story is going.

It’s in this setting that the so-called Tea Party movement in the States is a compelling study—really, the closest thing that country has seen to a challenge to the status quo. As I read about its rallies and increasing political leverage, I’m horrified but fascinated. But after you peel back all the right-wing nut-jobbery, the whacko doubts about Obama’s claims to American citizenship, the braying stupidity about crucial social entitlements and other bad attitudes around the margins, the movement at its heart questions the cozy political and corporate oligarchy and its right to squander the hopes and expectations of society. It’s an irony that most of my US friends who are Democrats can only see the Tea Party as some extreme Republican resurgence (yes, that’s a worry) and are mute when asked if Tea Party outrage doesn’t share with Democrats at least anger toward and distrust of big corporations and big money (Wall Street), and the willingness of big government to serve those interests. Of course, I’m politically naïve and simply don’t understand highly nuanced positioning. 

Dave Hughes, the former Natural Resources Canada Director of the National Coal Inventory (I’ve quoted him in a previous column), notes acerbically “One way or another, the future will be ecological.” 

Between oil spills, pandemics, famine-induced mass migration and the Tea Party, I have no doubt that Dave is right.

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.

Copyright © 2010, Gene Miller