Depend on your Wheelbarrow

SUBHEAD: Once you’ve swallowed the little red pill you’re kicked out of the garden of oblivious innocence and blissful ease.

By Elizabeth Scarpino on 1 November 2010 in Transition Voice

Image above: A restored wheelbarrow ready for another decade. From (  

[Author's note: The following has all been said before, more eloquently, factually, persistently and presciently by others. But living with these thoughts is certainly new to me.]

I wonder, once you’ve peered through the peak-oil lens, can you ever be truly, blithely carefree or happy again? I guess it requires the sort of psychological doubling wherein you lead your normal day-to-day physical and mental life unconscious of the immense damage that your actions and society’s deeds have caused, and suppressing odious thoughts about a radically different future.

Indeed, daily tasks like laundry and grocery shopping go so much better when free of the paralysis of fear, guilt, and the unknown. Mundane matters always remain, yet this pilgrim’s progress continues…

Friends wonder if this—peak oil—is what I’m “into” now, a new obsession. They seem dubious. “So you’re really passionate about this stuff?” If, by passionate they mean “the state of being acted upon or strongly affected by something external, especially something alien to one’s nature or one’s customary behavior” then, yes.

I don’t want this to be my passion, but is there a choice?

Hello, hello, hello, is there anyone in there?
How can you be a human, a parent, a spouse, a neighbor, a Christian, an Earthling, and not be preoccupied by this?

Once you’ve swallowed the little red pill (what used to be known before The Matrix as tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil), you’re kicked out of the garden of oblivious innocence and blissful ease. It’s not fun, it’s not sexy, it does not garner party invitations and it does not bring satisfaction or contentment.

It doesn’t even help you feel mentally-prepared. It just makes you feel anxious and hyper-aware. It alters relationships, as well as your perceptions of previously routine tasks and choices. It both clouds and clarifies everyday thinking.
My mind wanders now whenever it’s time to pay bills, for example: so what if the mortgage gets paid….a useless paper deed to this or any other property is so not going to matter….a paid-in-full status on the utility accounts will not bring us any more water or juice when they’re shut down….why renew the truck registration when it’ll probably soon become just another permanently-parked, hopefully raccoon-proof chicken coop?
When an average, check-writing, middle class housewife begins thinking this way, a fundamental shift has occurred. And one far more radical than simple political disaffection. It’s not about the money, it’s about the folly, about the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. These things may matter for the short-term, but clearly such things will not matter one whit in the future. (I can’t even begin to imagine the anarchic thoughts of someone who has already lost life savings, or been forced from their home by robo-foreclosure or debt from hospital bills.)

You don’t need a weatherman I’m not a polemicist or a college professor or even an online thought-leader, but I can sense which way the wind blows, and these days it’s a foul wind that carries the fetid stench of rotting rubbish. The heap of decaying institutions, basic former certainties and hopes and quashed dreams grows bigger daily. And of course the municipal services that deal with this trash are dwindling, too.

It’s often said that economics is a soft science, one based more on perceptions than realities, on collective faith-leaps and mutual expectations and assurances, on responsibility and trust. Well, it’s gotten soft all right — it’s all turned to mush — and there’s just no substantial foundation on which our personal and collective futures can rest. Add to it the weight of peak oil, and the structure of slop is not just unsound, it’s altogether insane. And it takes some pretty powerful mass doubling to ignore the multi-layered obvious.

Once when I was a kid, my dad (then a senior editor at the Federal Reserve) dressed up as The Malthusian Spectre for Halloween. He wore a zombie mask and a ragged bedsheet and hung some of my old broken baby dolls and a loaf of Wonder Bread around his neck. I guess back in the seventies, economists in the First World thought that predictions of massive starvation and overpopulation were ridiculous.
But Dad’s costume sure left an impression on me.

Little did I realize we’d get the trifecta Now we have the terrible trifecta of Peaks, with a capital "P": water, food, and most importantly, oil—which is what is needed currently for the water and food. The Malthusian Specter is nothing compared to the coming collapse.

Sure it’s a drag, but current and future suffering calls upon us to be passionate, and begs us to show compassion. How we react to this calling matters. So many people I know want to avoid negativity in every way possible, even mocking or ignoring the stark realities, keeping only “positive thoughts,” “eliminating stress,” and taking the “it’s all good” approach. Hardly a balanced, real existence, embracing the light and the dark that both the human condition and the end of oil represent.
I don’t want the clumsy, ugly flatness of denial, inaction or depression.

I want to be brave. The word bravery is linked to passion, and derived from pathos, which means overcoming and suffering the barriers on our journey. In my new chain of being, someone who strives to combat The Coming Famine, and teaches and helps others do so, is at the top of the chain.

When we are all kicked out of our oil-soaked oblivion, when we’ve almost completely ruined our Eden, how we respond matters. I am determined to prepare and repair, to learn and train, to shelter, to work, to progress.

Mark my word Back in the day my dad also told me about the legendary German hyperinflation after WWI: how they had to take a wheelbarrow full of banknotes to the bakery just to buy a loaf of bread. This was just mind-blowing to my childish weekly-allowance-spending sensibilities: how could money ever be worthless?

It was the classic example of the declining value of currency when over-issued, but it happened to Deutchmarks, not dollars. That couldn’t happen to us, I reasoned — only to war-weary, pitiful Germans, who ate weird dark unsliced bread anyway.

Recently, I heard the story told again by a preacher on the radio. Only, this time, when the Hausfrau came to retrieve her cart full of marks to pay the baker, she found the pile of useless paper money fluttering on the ground; the wheelbarrow had been stolen, instead. Again, a fundamental, stark shift in the standard version of the economic canon.

This is where I am now: I would rather have the wheelbarrow. I know life will not change overnight, that the dissolution of relative prosperity and creature comforts will be somewhat gradual. (My friend and I used to lament how everyone took things for granted. We wished for a period when folks would cherish something as special as an orange for Christmas. Be careful what you wish for…) Yet my faith in basic economic models, functions and institutions has disintegrated to such an extent that I would rather have the wheelbarrow, the item of utility. The thing that will help me move soil or my own rubbish, or to grow food.

Economic upheaval is one thing: we’ve dealt with that before – nationally and internationally — always softened by the cushion of plentiful oil. But marry the foundering economy with the end of cheap oil, and our society becomes an unholy unsustainable union, with the bastard offspring of climate change. It simply cannot hold.

Sturdy shoes, warm socks Who really cares anymore about money supply, purchased mortgage-backed securities, or anything the Fed does? Even the foreclosures and loss of jobs and savings don’t exude the tragedy they once did. They’re commonplace, mainstream, old news, the new normal. There’s a whole new set of more practical concerns. I now prize things of real value, permanence and utility: stone, metal, my grandmother’s quilts, hearty plants, sturdy shoes and warm socks.
But most of all I value responsible, brave, passionate people.


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