Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Hallow's Eve

We first arrived in Ireland a few days before Samhain -- Hallowe'en -- when The Girl was still a baby. I didn't realise then that this was the day for setting off fireworks here, like Independence Day in the USA, New Year's Eve in Germany or Guy Fawkes night in the UK.

Let me tell you, there's nothing a jet-lagged baby loves more than artillery outside the window.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Country door

In the Wicklow Mountains near us. I don't know why the door is shaped like that either, and no one seemed to be home for me to ask.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Forest road

The Girl knows that, only a brief time ago - in the thousands of years -- the whole world looked like the Serengeti does today, with massive animals everywhere and ancient trees. She knows that a short time ago islands near us had Giant Swans, that my native Missouri had sloths the size of elephants, and that the islands here once saw the Great Auk and the Irish elk.

She knows that almost all the great animals are gone now, killed by humans. She knows the Oldest Story, Gilgamesh, begins with the felling of the great trees, and that's why Gilgamesh's land is now a desert. She knows that there are only a few fragments of this World Gone By still alive, places where the soil has not been harvested away and the landscape has not been scoured. She knows we have to protect them from our own kind. 

"But there are so few of them left," she said the other night, "What happens if they go too?"

It will be sad for us, because we won't get to see them anymore, I said. But it won't be the end for the Creation; it has been remade many times before. We are part of its story, not the other way around. Our job is to become the heroes of the story.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


The Girl and I walked over the grounds of Glendalough, one of our favourite places – a monastery that has nestled snugly in a hollow of the Wicklow Mountains for 1,500 years. Walking among massive old trees and the graves of centuries of ascetics, she and I, we go to church.

On this day she was looking at a cluster of sulphur cap mushrooms, and asked why they were called that. I explained that sulphur is yellow and sometimes toxic, and so are these mushrooms. Do you remember what sulphur is? I asked.

Like hydrogen sulphide? She asked – we had talked about the rotten-egg smell.

Like hydrogen sulphide, I said. Sulphur is an element – a type of atom. There are about 100 other kinds of atoms in the universe, but almost everything in the living world – these trees, cows, polar bears, mushrooms, soil, ICarly – is made of just four things. Remember what those are?

“HONK,” she said, pushing my belly like an elevator button. It’s an inside joke between us, a mnemonic device we created to help her remember Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen and Carbon.

You’re right, I said – it’s a great way to remember it. So almost everything is those four, and several others are also useful – sulphur, silicon, phosphorous, magnesium, calcium. Most metals are single elements -- iron, gold, silver and copper.

But most elements, I said, you hardly ever run into on this planet, or they don’t do much; most people, I thought, never need to know ytterium from ytterbium, or tellurium from tantalum. Anyway, I said, sulphur is not one of those most common elements, but you’ll find it around our world, often in unpleasant things like factory smoke, acid rain and rotten-egg smell.

The Girl listened politely for a moment, and then said, “May I climb that tree?” and seeing me nod she was off again. I stretch her patience a little further each time, hoping that it springs back into shape a little different than before. 

Photo: The Girl at Glendalough.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Too Much Magic

Almost eight years ago I interviewed author James Howard Kunstler for a magazine cover story, and the publisher didn’t want to run it; I had just written my own cover story on the peak and decline of the world’s oil supply six months earlier, and they didn’t want to go over the same ground again. I fought for and won the cover story, though, for I wanted to publicise issues like peak oil, climate change and other crises, yet struggled to concisely express the way they could build upon one another to undermine the basic life-support systems of modern society.

And then I read Kunstler’s book, with its haunting title: The Long Emergency.  

At the time, issues like peak oil were mainly relegated to arcane web sites that also featured alien abductions and September 11 conspiracies. Climate change was slightly better-known but still marginal in the USA. The rare writers who discussed these issues treated them in isolation, without considering how multiple crises would hit an indebted and unhealthy society from many directions at once. Finally, everyone tended to think of the result as a sudden apocalypse, and not something long.

Kunstler brought these issues together, and as close to the mainstream as they have ever come; only his cumudgeonly wit and avuncular charm could bring them to late-night chat shows and national radio networks. The very phrase “long emergency” has become a handy expression in preparedness circles, like “black swan” or “perfect storm,” even by those who don't know its origin.

Of course, mainstream culture has never been very receptive to such messages; images of “the future” usually come with the same flying cars and domed cities that have remained ten or twenty years away since the 1800s. The myth of progress has been deeply imprinted on us, and colours our view of history, culture, evolution, and any number of other fields. Mainstream culture remains invested in the belief that we are getting better, faster, and stronger every day, and that this trend will be endless, beneficial and inevitable.

My friends who are Christian traditionalists, social progressives, or libertarian conservatives have their own variations on the theme, but none have abandoned it. Some imagine progress to be a 20,000 Dow, others gay marriage and still others quantum computers, but everyone wants us to move further forward, whichever direction they imagine that to be. Any course change is assumed to be derailing our social and technological evolution, a call to get “back on track” and continue the transformation we saw in the 20th century. The Long Emergency has something to displease everyone.

I found in Kunstler a kindred spirit, and reading his books as I rocked my baby daughter to sleep, I wondered how much of the Long Emergency we would see before she was grown. I wrote in one early article that I doubted she would be hunting elk through an abandoned city, or that she would be flying a jetpack to work, or any of the other science-fiction scenarios that form the pillars of our mental architecture. I leaned towards Kunstler’s vision of economic crashes, escalating weather crises, wildly unpredictable fuel prices, agricultural failures, riots and violent revolutions – and so far, he’s been on the money. 

It’s strange to realise how much of our recent social landscape – Hurricane Katrina, the actual oil production peak, the economic crash – were still in the future when he was writing. He even hit the jackpot with some of his wilder claims – a return of open-ocean piracy, for example, or World Made By Hand’s posited “Mexican flu.”

The worst that can be said for Too Much Magic, James Howard Kunstler’s long-awaited follow-up, is that it delivers a reshuffled anagram of everything he has said in numerous books, articles, blogs, speeches, podcasts and interviews. The unconverted probably will not read it, and it’s not the best starting point anyway.

Kunstler seems aware of this, so Too Much Magic is, if anything, an even grumpier jeremiad than his previous works, as though directed more to the choir. He waxes thoughtful about the deeper cultural sickness evident in ghetto fashions and Disneyland’s landscape. He enjoys flaying his longtime nemeses – Ray Kurzweil and Amory Lovins – and takes special aim at utopian futures, the "magic" of the title.

He brings his usual adjectival pile-ups, like “hyper-patriotic pugnacious militarism.” He delivers his trademark bon mots, as when referring to Ronald Reagan’s “aw-shucks boobery,” or the belief that “the planet is a bonbon with a creamy nougat centre.” The chapter pages reveal his own interests, for he devotes far more pages to the shenanigans of stock market brokers as he does to the potentially greater disasters from climate change. Like so many others, he can be too eagerly dire at times, implying years for social changes that would probably take decades.

Such criticisms, of course, come from one who has followed his work for eight years; someone coming to these issues for the first time would probably see it very differently. My interview with Kunstler eight years ago baffled some readers, who felt indignant at even the notion of returning to a more baseline society. The few people who responded favourably tended to treat Kunstler as an apocalypse nut, associating him with 2012-style New Age prophecies.

Kunstler was and remains a prophet, but not in the modern sense of a guru with mystical visions. Old Testament prophets were the doomers of their day, warning of disaster if – there was always a conditional – the people did not mend their ways. They were not popular with the king’s yes-men, the mainstream media of the time; Ahab said of Micaiah, for example, that “I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favourable about me, but only disaster.”  Someone had to have listened, though, for Jeremiah’s words have spread through the world, and Ahab’s yes-men have been forgotten. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

No there there

The Girl pointed to a rainbow in the sky, and asked me where it ended. Is it possible to see the ending? she asked.

I’m afraid not, I said. If we went where the rainbow appears, we might see it somewhere else, as far away as before, or we might see nothing. We won’t see it come down around where we’re standing, though, because a rainbow only exists in the distance, at this spot, at that angle.

“We can see it, but it’s not really there?” she asked.

It’s there here, I said, but it’s not there there, I said. She frowned as though gingerly prodding the thought.

“If we went there so that there was here, it wouldn’t be there here, but it might be a different there there.”

Right, I said. But it will never be here here. So many things are like that, I thought to myself -- prosperity, safety, beauty. They always appear in the distance, but run towards them and they still look like they're just over the next hill.

“Like tomorrow,” The Girl said. “Tomorrow never happens.” That’s right, I said. That’s why I’m out with you today.

Photo: Rainbow over the Ha'penny Bridge, with a gull flying through where it isn't.