Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What will they inherit?

A little over one hundred years ago, humanity won the lottery.

Or, more accurately, we found a fossil fuel lottery buried under the Earth and proceeded to extract and burn it with reckless abandon. The energy we obtained from this lottery allowed us to shatter all population records (going from 1 to 6.7+ billion people) by drenching our harvests with fertilizers and pesticides, let us make gasoline-fueled transport popular and affordable, and transformed our homes with unheard-of electrical conveniences.

Here we are, a century later, beginning to notice that we have become completely and utterly dependent on a lottery payment that is now declining.

In another hundred years, in true Hubbert bell-curve fashion, we may be producing only the amount of oil and fossil fuels that we did one hundred years ago. We will have spent the bulk of our geological lottery. And after all the processing, and burning, is over, what will we have left of enduring value to our great-great grandchildren? Will they think the burden of clean-up was worth what they inherited? What will be left of our massive infrastructure build out and production/consumption economy?

To get a glimpse of what our world might look like as we have less and less energy, money and materials to maintain our crumbling infrastructure, take a look at The World Without Us. The author, Alan Weisman, describes how the world would transform if all of humanity suddenly disappeared. I fear, and hope, that parts of the transformation will occur quite similarly as we just don't have enough resources to pave the roads, clean up after the nuclear disposals, and rebuild after tornadoes, hurricanes, and other disasters.

Nature reclaims her domain, plants and animals return to their ecosystems, and rivers begin to run clear. Meanwhile, dams burst from lack of maintenance, radioactive waste seeps into the groundwater, skyscrapers eventually fall, and plastics persist into the next millennium.

But after peak oil, we will still be here to maintain our works. The question is, can we choose wisely what to maintain as energy becomes less and less available? Can we choose to keep the best inventions, information, and achievements and let the insignificant things, which may seem so important now, slip away? Let the skyscrapers fall, but keep antibiotics? Let the highways crumble, but preserve our knowledge and literature in libraries? How will we decide what is truly worth maintaining for a thousand years?

Or will we piss the rest of the lottery away in a vain attempt to keep the Happy-Motoring lifestyle and economy on life-support, and leave nothing of value to our great-grandchildren?

What would YOU choose to bequeath to the next generations?


thetinfoilhatsociety said...

I work in healthcare; I have been disturbed on more than one occasion thinking of the plain WASTE that gets produced on one single shift I work. And also of the products that I give to my patients -- all of which, without exception, are benefits of fossil fuels. IV fluids -- well, we could go back to glass bottles, but the tubing still is plastic; most of the medicines are in plastic bottles or bags; the syringes come in plastic protective containers and are themselves made of plastic; the monitors are all made of plastic and computer chips...I could go on and on.

What will become of our healthcare system, such as it is? In one sense, it will be a plus to have practicioners go back to actual patient assessment, and listening, to diagnose an illness or condition. In another, it is quite depressing and frightening to think of the things we take for granted (and the risks we take such as taking newborns out into public) that simply will not be available without cheap fossil fuels.

Hausfrau said...

TFHS - thanks for your comment! I appreciate your perspective. I agree that healthcare would be a good place to focus our "preservation" efforts. And like you say, we don't need to keep a healthcare system like the one we have in place today. But I hope we can keep the best of the best.

AK said...

I've come to the conclusion, after watching recent attempts to "fix the economy", that what we choose to save all depends on what stories people are invested in and what they refuse to admit is wrong. Healing seems to require that one admit that there was a wrong to begin with. And then when that wrong is diagnosed, to have the courage to do the hard job of letting go of the story that shored up that wrong and holding it accountable. And not try to make it all better by telling a coverup story or a bunch of excuses for why it didn't work. We are still trying to shore up the ideology that keeps us on the wrong path. So there's a job here for those of us willing to tell a different story.

Michael Smith, Randy Floyd, Shauna Struby said...

i love this post -- it resonates with thinking about future -- along the lines of the Great Law of the Iroquois which paraphrased is -- in every deliberation let us consider the impact on the next seven generations -- i wonder how the world would be different if this Great Law would have been in place at the outset of the industrial revolution -- but even more importantly, i wonder how we can incorporate this law into our planning and thinking going forward -- it is a concept from our country's Original People whose time has come ... again ... i hope we can look again at other ancient wisdom as society grows up -- i think we have much to relearn

Squrrl said...

I fear that my daughter and future siblings will have to grow up in hunger, danger, and want in a world that won't give up its old stories and move on. But on the other hand, I hope that the country highway that runs in front of our house will someday be a place for her to play hopscotch and soccer, with perhaps only the occasional car. I share TFHS's fears, of course, regarding health care--who wouldn't?--but on the other hand I hope we can prioritize. For my mother's fancy scope-surgery to remove a gallstone blocking the duct? Yeah, plastics. For my homebirth? A few pairs of examination gloves and a couple of absorbent "chux" pads that could have been old towels--and you couldn't get less "out into public" than her first couple weeks!

I don't worry about my own daughter's education, because there's no better education than growing up in a home that loves learning, but that's certainly not the case for many children, and I do worry about them. Will they have teachers to care about them and show them the larger world? Will they have libraries to go to?

What terrifies me most is that I think much of the worst damage we've done to our environment has yet to come home to roost. I hate to think of children yet unborn, who likely will never have a _chance_ to be part of the problem, suffering chronic illness, reproductive problems, toxicity effects, etc., because of things we've already done (like plastics breaking down in the environment or toxic wastes escaping from old industrial areas).