Thursday, February 10, 2011

Descent, pt. 2

This is the second entry of a multi-part post. The first part is Descent, pt. 1.

Life(style) insurance

Introducing others to peak oil and other resource depletion issues is tricky business. Likely reactions range from flat denial to talking only about what other people should be doing about the problem. It's like trying to start a conversation with your spouse about how much insurance you should buy for your house and your spouse insists either that (1) your house is invulnerable to any type of destruction or (2) that the Powers That Be should get busy about eliminating fires, theft, storms, and floods altogether. Understandably, it's a bit of a drag to make insurance payments when you never file a claim; on the other hand, it's an enormous problem not to have any coverage and to suffer a loss so big you can't afford to cover it yourself. Though we all hope never to suffer such losses, planning ahead for their possibility seems like the prudent, wise thing to do. But somehow this logic gets lost for many people when faced with society-scoped issues like peak oil and resource depletion.

It was with this in mind that I wondered how to broach to Laura the topic of a prudently planned future. The urban, white-collar middle class of which we are a part is now three generations deep into operating under the assumption that the future will be a continuation of the past, only more so. Adolescence to college to job to car to spouse to house to kids to retirement to old age. Throw into the mix divorce and remarriage, too. How many more generations will thrive operating under this assumption? That's not clear to me, but the prudent and wise course is to have that conversation about deciding how much metaphorical insurance coverage to buy against this lifestyle. But how do I start that conversation when the conversation is so often vetoed?

My sneaky plan

The sneaky plan I ultimately settled on was to have someone else start that conversation for me. I purchased online a used copy of John Michael Greer's 2008 book, The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, and used Laura's and my standing arrangement of it being okay to “make” the other person read a book from time to time. Despite this arrangement, however, I felt trepidation in undertaking this plan. Was I being too sneaky? Too manipulative? Did what I was doing constitute a breach in our trust for the other? I hadn't even read the book myself and couldn't vouch for it with certainty. Would Laura end up flinging the book against the wall in disgust without even finishing the first chapter (as the author himself wryly suggests some people are likely to do)? How would she react to a world view bounded with hard limits? How would she react to an author who heads his own fringe, polytheistic religion? In short: what was I expecting?

On the other hand, what I knew is that Greer is simultaneously erudite and entertaining and has a masterful command of language, and these skills make it easier for readers to swallow otherwise unpleasing messages. I knew of Greer's skills because I had been reading his peak-oil-related blog, The Archdruid Report, for a while and, based on that, trusted that The Long Descent would not be as hocus pocus as I would have otherwise expected from an author who frequently writes about the occult. I also knew that the book wouldn't stoop to arguing the peak oil thesis point by point, fact by fact, which often results in either the reader's eyes glazing over or else the reader digging in her heels and becoming obstinate and irrational. Rather, I knew The Long Descent would be comparative history. It would present a cyclical view of the past centering around the rises and falls of former great civilizations and how individuals nowadays do or don't incorporate that view into their day-to-day lives when thinking about our own civilization. Solid stuff. Practical stuff. Stuff you can hang your hat on.

What I didn't expect is just how immensely successful and rewarding my sneaky plan would prove to be. Laura enjoyed the book, enough that she since bought it for her parents to read. That's a strong recommendation. While reading it, Laura did a share of initiating conversations about the future. That rarely happened previously. And though we're far from agreement or certainty about what we should be doing, the dialog is now started. Mission accomplished.

Might there be a good way to introduce others to peak oil and resource depletion after all?

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