Keywords: New Zealand; energy; peak oil; cities; food production; re-localization; Dark Ages; hinterland; technology; ecosystems; carrying capacity; innovation.
I met my friends Jack and Jo for dinner in a restaurant and should have had fun. They gave me an orchid plant, tomatoes, an heirloom James Thurber book, and a superb Thai birthday dinner that lasted four hours. But we argued the whole time and, after several hugs, I came home defeated and sad.
They had just spent a month traveling around New Zealand with their three grown sons’ families, scouting the place out to decide whether to relocate the whole clan to those parts. It was Jack’s initiative, but Jo has agreed to move there. My plan was to reason them out of it, but I failed. I think they may actually pull up stakes from Canada and move to an under- populated island in New Zealand. Why would a warm, smart, lovable couple do such a thing in their retirement years?
For six or seven years, Jack has occupied himself as an activist-economist working on sustainable energy issues, becoming ever more convinced that humanity is in the first stages of an unavoidable catastrophe: the impending depletion of cheap petroleum. Oil may already have peaked, he says, but if not yet, it will begin a precipitous drop-off within a decade. When that happens, Canada will be a terrible place to live. We’ll be unable to keep warm in the winter, or to transport ourselves around, or to cultivate food and ship it to our grocery stores. The US next door may resort to un-neighborly ways of obtaining Canada’s supplies of wood and water. There will be enormous pressure to use coal for fuel, which may send global warming into a qualitatively different state from now. Nor will any practicable alternative to oil become available in the foreseeable future.
There is no basis for hope that cities will survive this crisis, he argues. We city dwellers must die — either from the direct effects of the energy shortage — hunger, cold, and isolation — or from the violence that will erupt when the whole global population becomes desperate. Some of the urban residents will escape to remote hinterlands where they will learn to grow their own food. Those are the lucky ones, for the unlucky will perish. Some small towns may live. The only hope is through re-localization— the creation of new, self-sufficient communities scattered across the rural landscape. We are already exceeding the carrying capacity of the land, Jack says, but this has been possible only because of cheap oil. It cannot be sustained. He and Jo have found a few New Zealanders in a town called Nelson (see photo) who are trying to work out ways of surviving in the terrible times that lie ahead. Certainly not all their three sons’ families will accompany them, but they seem prepared to change their life style anyway and venture to New Zealand as pioneer settlers in the new Dark Ages -— though that is my term for it, not theirs.
They were ready to listen to my arguments. I said that I myself would never do such a thing, even if I were young and healthy. I could not just abandon my loved ones in the city and leave them to die. I would have to stay here and do my best to save them.
Besides, I said, cities are where the solutions will have to be developed. As Jane Jacobs said, cities have always paid their own way by helping invent more efficient ways for the hinterland farmers to be productive enough to feed them. The same will happen in this new disaster. If the cities collapse, so will civilization. Innovations and discoveries occur where there are concentrations of smart people interacting.
But with the Internet, Jo replied, smart people can innovate together without living in the same area. Maybe cities are no longer so important.
But, I insisted, if cities are going to be the place of greatest danger, that’s where I want to be. I want to be where the action is. I will never look for danger, but I hope I’ll never run away from it either. I would not want to be among the few survivors in a lifeboat while the ship sinks. If Torontonians are suffering, I’ll want to be here where I may be able to contribute something.
Jack and Jo believe instead that they can contribute most in a remote New Zealand island, creating a new, simpler way of living in community. Besides, they asked, how can anyone contribute while living in a city?
Now our disagreement was becoming clearer. They do not really want this current civilization to continue as it is. They don’t like it, whereas I do. I said that I’d put my bets on technology to save our asses. I’d fund it and put it to work devising more efficient methods of production and new sources of energy. I said it is wonderful that there are so many people alive today, living such long lives.
They thought not. There are too many people. The human population will have to be reduced by half. Even if there could be fusion energy right away, Jack wouldn’t want it. Why? Because the availability of cheap energy has enabled humankind to destroy the fragile ecosystems. Technology more often degrades ecosystems than enhances them. Whenever the slightest change is made – even an improvement – it usually causes irreparable harm to other aspects of ecosystems.
Look, I said, that’s just how progress takes place. You take one step forward and make a mess. So you clean it up, even as you are taking the next step forward. There are always messes to clean up. You can never create new solutions without creating new problems too. But that’s okay. That’s a lot more fun, in fact, than trying to prevent change. I love the challenge. Yes, we may fail — but I want to be right here participating in the action. I don’t want to retreat.
So we had reached an impasse. Aware that I was not convincing them, I took the low road. I argued that it is disloyal to abandon the society that has borne us. I said I felt betrayed. They would set forth, abandoning loved ones whom they expect will die. I would never do such a thing.
They looked solemn. Obviously, they had no intention of hurting me but I felt sad and angry. We walked to our cars and hugged each other goodbye.
There will be other talks. I will not give up easily. But I have no more arguments. I hope someone will send me a few good ones. Thank you.