An oft-quoted Saudi proverb haunts me: “My father rode a camel, I drive a car, my son rides in a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel.”
Underneath the clicks and squeaks of everyday life a drum is pounding, deep and relentless. I've always had an ear for the apocalyptic, but lately the beat seems louder, the rhythm more defined. Global warming, peak oil, the end of the American Century… Sure, it’s probably amplified by seeing War of the Worlds tonight — a masterpiece of apocalyptic horror — but we are naive if we think the world is not undergoing radical and accelerating change.
It is not alien invasion I fear, but the crossing of some critical boundary. Humanity, almost by definition, is an upsetting force in nature. But now it seems our technology is in a dead heat with the destruction wrought by the very economic engine which makes that technology possible. We have grown ourselves into a corner, such that a fundamental transformation of the human condition is now inevitable.
I am not a technocrat, believing that technology alone will save us. Technological solutions must be guided by a vision for a sustainable planet, and married with economics to imbue them with essential momentum.
The oil crisis is now, within our lifetimes. Most of us in cush Middle America have no conception of how thoroughly dependent we are on oil. We think in terms of gasoline prices, but that's just the point at which we interact with oil directly. Some are aware of the connection of oil prices to grocery prices, and dimly conceive the vast network of distribution and delivery which sustains our economy. Transportation means oil. Electricity — to a large degree — burns oil. And let me tell you, if things start heating up you're not going to get the average American to shut off his air conditioner to conserve energy.
Part of me remains an optimist. The energy companies know that business as usual is coming to an end, and are pursuing alternative means of energy production. I am impressed by efforts made by General Electric and BP. You don’t have to trust in the altruism of Big Business — renewable energy makes good economic sense. In fact, it will be a trillion-dollar business if we survive the transition.
The prospect of someday bringing a child into this world makes me take these ideas very seriously. How much of the comfort we enjoy today can reasonably be taken for granted? Do we plan for graduate school, or survival in a devastated suburban landscape? The joys or reading, or proficiency with a firearm?
My instinct is that the world will become less predictable, and it will be necessary to assess what we feel we can give up and what we will choose to cling to. Right now I take a shower every day, enjoy my air conditioner and laundry and dishwasher and computer and car. What if none of those things were available anymore? I can put up with a certain degree of privation, but how much? And what of my wife? My child? How would we survive in the desert?