Tuesday 23 December 2008
The moment of darkness
Almost vibrating with excitement, my four-year-old carefully carried ornaments to the pine sapling in our living room last night, cradling each one like they were diamonds. We have decked our halls with literal holly from our land, bought a Christmas goose, and are planning a quiet and intimate family Christmas here in rural Ireland.
Holiday cheer, though, struggles against the long winter darkness in this place – we are less than a thousand miles from the Arctic Circle, and today there will be seven hours of dull daylight -- and this year, more than most, it also struggles against the world news.
“Papa, Father Christmas lives at the North Pole!” my daughter announced with the confidence of a four-year-old.
Yes he does, I said, wanting her to experience this magic while she can. What is the North Pole like?
“Well, it is covered with ice and ... snow ... all white and cold ...and …”
But by the time she stops believing in a few years, I think to myself, it might not be. The 2007 ice shocked everyone, shrinking so much that the sea drew near the Pole. That year the IPCC had predicted a new ocean there by 2070. Two months later a new projection said 2030. Two months later they said five years. I'm already talking about Santa Claus; what else should I pretend?
What animals would Santa see at the North Pole? I ask.
“Well,” she begins, “there are polar bears, and seals, and ...”
Perhaps not for long. The polar bears eat the seals that eat the fish that eat the plankton, and the plankton are dying – 73 percent down since 1960. Half the plankton – almost half the animal mass of the Arctic – have disappeared since the Simpsons’ first episode. Maybe it’s because the oceans are growing warmer, maybe because they are getting more acid, maybe it's the plastic and chemicals we've poured into the oceans in my short lifetime. We just don't know.
Reality intrudes into other arenas of childhood. I consider showing her Bugs Bunny cartoons with the Tasmanian Devil, and think: the real one is almost extinct. I introduced her to clips of Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly, and she asked, “What is a firefly?”
Fireflies, I explained, are little bugs back where Papa grew up in America, and they light up the night ...
Except not any more. They flickered yellow-green across the grass in my Missouri hometown – you could find your way in the dark by their light. I went back there last year and the nights were black – only a few flickers, and then deep in the Ozark woods.
We put together her jigsaw puzzles of the continents, and I am surprised to see Asia depicted, accurately, without Lake Aral. My childhood maps of Asia are now wrong – that massive lake, the fourth-largest in the world, disappeared in a few decades. Her map of Africa does not show Lake Chad, either – maybe the toymakers are thinking ahead.
We live a strange life, those of us who follow closely the breaking of the world. We look at our kitchens and offices and bus stops and see products of petroleum-powered machines on the other side of the world, transported here in petroleum engines. We flick past the mainstream media every morning and go straight to BBC Science, the Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin, scroll through the allied blogs and listen to podcasts on the bus – all while working regular jobs, paying mortgages and caring for children and elderly, each week filled with the burning usual.
In my case, I am also a father, and I want my daughter to have a decent life in a strange time. I am in my 30s now, but I knew five of my great-grandparents, all born in the 19th century, and my daughter, if she is lucky, may live to see the 22nd. Her life might span humanity's most important decades, and before she is even an adult, the world could grow much more difficult – energy shortages, food shortages, economic collapses and a Malthusian crush. I want her to be able to realize what is happening, and not to be bewildered by a domino line of solitary unthinkables –you can't drink the water here, the power went out, it's not safe there anymore.
As a journalist, I know this is how the mainstream media usually show the world. Civil unrest broke out. Congressional leaders said. Troops encountered heavy fire. Our history books show us where we came from in the same tedious way – Black Tuesday followed by the Smoot-Hawley Tarriff followed by the CCC followed by Lend-Lease. In both cases, the story told is the story of federal policies, generals and brokers, far removed from the details of life, from the millions of activists who pushed change through, and from the ebb and flow of resources that drove the national engines.
As news events unfold in her life, I don't want her to accept them as a string of disconnected troubles – I want her to see that the price spike in oil is connected to the food riots in Haiti, that the plastic wrapper on the celery is tied to the Texas-sized floating garbage patch in the Pacific.
And – while no father wishes grief for his daughter – I want her to be able to grieve for the vanished pieces of our world, not because it is fun or useful, but because it is the right thing to do. Older people are sometimes shocked at what is no longer common knowledge – to high school graduates today, the world before September 11 or Google is as remote and theoretical as Vietnam was to me, or as Pearl Harbour was to my parents. I’m not sure how I feel about the disappearance of two of the world’s largest lakes from the jigsaw puzzle – I want her to learn, when she is older, that they used to be there.
At the same time, I don’t want her to be overtaken by grief. At a peak oil conference in Cork last year I met a man who had journeyed there from Australia on behalf of his teenaged son. His son, Tasman McKee, learned about peak oil in 2005, read the works of the most dire peak oil prophets, joined list-serves that pore over details of a coming die-off, and he became more and more convinced that nothing lay before him but a desperate and despairing future. After a year of this, he vanished, and only after reading his computer files did his parents learn of his obsession. His body was found on a remote mountain two months after his suicide.
I have been getting back in touch with old friends from environmental campaigns, and many have also fallen off the map. Few went as far as Tasman, or as far as a church pastor and Green activist I knew who killed himself a few years ago. But many feel defeated. They had warned of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse for decades – now, some say, it’s started. It’s too late.
I want to spare my daughter this. I want to instill, to whatever extent a father can, the high and driving Spirit, the sanguine craving to restore. Of course it is too late to change everything, and always has been. Everything is too big. But each of us can do something where we are, and there are millions of us.
We could look at the world's troubles and sink into grief, as we could when a fire sweeps through a forest or a flood wipes away a city. But forests and populations generally come back, sometimes better. We can mourn for the already extinct species, lakes and forests as we mourn our dead, but as long as we remain alive we are greater than grief. Nature will return, and with our help can return in time for our species to appreciate.
And for most of the world, it is not too late. Just a few years ago peak oil and climate change were obscure ideas, and they rapidly spread until they broke into the mainstream. We are trying to return to a simpler life, and so are millions of others – the largest movement ever, happening in every part of the world. I want her to know that we are not trying to turn the tide, for tides are natural. What is happening to the world was done by men, and will be undone. I want her to know, as Tasman McKee did not, that she is not alone.
So I try to teach her, in small and playful ways, how the outside world works, and the basic skills she might need someday. The lullabies I sing to her are old folk songs, because unlike pop songs today, they are meant to be sung by ordinary people together, and we might need such things again. When we pick weeds for soup I tell her what little I know of the plants that can be eaten and plants to avoid. I am proud that, when she was only two and was stung by a nettle, she immediately found the nearest dock-leaf in the grass and rubbed it on the sting – she had absorbed that one heals the other.
She loves animals as much as any child, and we talk in detail about where they live, what makes them mammals or birds or bugs, what they eat and what they do for us and each other. For now, it is just a game, but over time, perhaps, she will make connections.
She knows, in recited pieces of theory at least, how to cook, how to make yogurt and sourdough starter, how to compost. In time, I want her to learn how to ride and bridle, speak different languages, hunt, be sceptical, think logically and organize people. I can’t completely predict what she will face, nor can I plan her life, but I can show her a beginning.
But right now she is four, and is waiting for Santa. She patiently takes a single treat out of her Advent calendar each day, she helps make supper and she will fall asleep listening for reindeer hooves on the roof. Christmas is at this time of year for a reason, and not because we know when Jesus was born. It is just after the weakest day and the longest night, when the world prepares to be born again, when we take our first steps away from the darkness and ready ourselves for the arduous season ahead.