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.


Unknown said...

This is one of the most moving and affecting posts I have read in a very long time.

You capture so well what all of us as parents and grandparents feel--the growing dissonance between our cherished belief of what the world is and could be, and the creeping horror of realization of what the world is and will likely be.

I fear for them as I fear for our future. Like you, I try to teach them what I can, to prepare them somewhat, to launch them with what skills, resourcefulness and optimism I can impart, knowing that none of it may be enough to adequately equip them for the dusk of the new Dark Ages.

At times I feel that I have failed my children as I contemplate the world as we leave it. Have we done all we could? I look around and see much still to do, and will stay busy to do what can be done, and through activity perhaps to generate hope.

Peace and blessings to you and your family. Strength to your arm, and to your heart.

Anonymous said...

I followed Keith's link over here, and must say this is one of the most moving pieces I've read in a long time.

Thank you.

jewishfarmer said...

Thank you for this lovely piece of writing, so evocative of every parent's ambiguities.


Sharon Astyk

Anonymous said...

Hauntingly beautiful - thank you.

Motherhood for the Weak said...

Beautiful and sad. I have chills. My daughter is 1 and I sometimes wonder if she is the last generation.


brierrabbit said...

Wonderful Blog. I found you thru the "Crunchy Con" Blog. By the way, I live in the Missouri Ozarks, and this year, after two somewhat dry years, the fire flies were out in abundance. The woods and pastures verily twinkeled with them. I hope your daughter gets to see them some day. If they were found in Ireland, there would be fairy stories told about them. They are a peice of real magic in the world. On another note, I do get the feeling, that some corner has been turned, some great gut feeling in the worlds people, that things can't go on this way. Nobody seems to quite verbalize why, but something changed. Some call it the "The Great Turning". I don't know what to call it, but you can kind of feel it in the air. Paul Hawken calls it the "Blessed Unrest" the greatest untold, and unheard cultural, political movement in history. Maybe God has chose this time for moving again, in the world. I hope your daughter grows up to see it.

RW said...

I come via Crunchy Con as well.
I enjoyed reading these words.
May the joy of the Nativity be with you and yours.

Anonymous said...

Nicely written- Thanks.
Your daughter has a reflected father.

Anonymous said...

It is, I believe, through stories such as these that we develop the emotional strength to continue to confront what we want to pretend doesn't exist, to feel what we fear will break our hearts and overwhelm us.

We can't "know" and we can't claim to "know" the future, but we are animals, every bit as true as those in the Chinese zoos that notify their wardens when an earthquake is coming. Just as real as those dogs that "know" in their guts, when their owners are returning.

In our hearts, we sense fear and foreboding. We want to claim, in our minds, that it is superstition or paranoia, or an anxiety disorder or worse. We want our healers to provide us some remedy or salve that we can bathe in or swallow that will allow us to wake up to a different reality. We want someone, anyone, to promise that our children will be safe. We want the right, as has been granted automatically to our ancestors, to anticipate a future filled with grandchildren, without the nagging guilt that we are continuing to doom the planet, the birds, the fish and the soil to more (and well over the tipping point) of destruction.

We want to look squarely into the eyes of each of the Tasman McKee's of the world, and reassure them, as we have been reassured, that they have a bright future ahead of them. We want to give our young adults hope, and not be liars and hypocrites. We want to give them inspiration to continue on, even as we feel our own despair, even as we talk ourselves out of our hopelessness and terror.

I've resorted to calling it all, "The Great Troubles." I’ve heard that phrase muttered at Irish-American wakes, to the grieving. "I'm sorry for your troubles..." they say. It doesn't say "It will be all right" or "It's not so bad." It doesn't promise the end of heart-wrenching pain or a shortcut to the endless days and nights of missing someone who you'll never see again. It simply acknowledges the human condition, the agony that both of us feel, the helplessness of not being able to do anything except acknowledge it.

“Sorry for your troubles” tells us that we aren’t alone, but also that we aren’t exempt. We’ve done this to ourselves, by being hopelessly human, voracious, and senselessly blind to our impact. We live now, with this universal Great Trouble, all of us, the worst and the best, the guilty and the innocent.

You've given us a great gift, Brian. You've told us "Sorry for our Troubles" and we've felt the compassion, the grace, and the mutual heart-ache.

Thank you.

Doyu Shonin said...

Got here from The Oil Drum.

Watched my daughter, 22, distraught, passionately defend dolphins at dinner last night -- was so proud of her and so afraid for her generation.

Thank you for a wonderful essay.

Tom Cleland said...

Thank you for this thoughtful Christmas essay. My annual Christmas blog post is at http://tomstream.blogspot.com/2008/12/2008-christmas-blog-post.html.

Anonymous said...

Simply, plainly: "Thank you....--"

Unknown said...

Thanks for that.

My daughter just turned 3 here in London (England), and she has a new sibling as of 6 weeks ago, and while I don't feel that their lives will be nasty brutish and short and I'm not a doomer, I do feel that we're going to all have to make a real effort to pull things back in the right direction. I'm putting a whole load of time and effort into trimming our carbon footprint at home by a factor of 3 or 4 (primary energy only, the rest is harder!) for example.

My parents worried about the Cuban Missile Crisis and wondered if they should be bringing up a child, so I think that if we can learn frugal and unlearn SUVs and conspicuous consumption and frequent flying, etc, then maybe things can be basically fine again in the same way.

Here's hoping (as a Lehman Brothers escapee nearly crunched again)!



Robin said...

This is perhaps the most lucid, haunting, and truthful piece of writing I've seen on the blogosphere. You've captured perfectly the inner turmoil of so many of us, raising children and fearing for the future, grieving so much that occurs in the present yet still holding close the joys of our children's precious young years.

I remember vividly at age 17 knowing with absolute certainty that the world was going to go up in a nuclear armageddon. The fact that my worst fears weren't realized does give me hope that we can still affect enough change, not to undo the damage that's been done (since I think we're past that point) but perhaps to craft a new future for humankind that offers some hope for our children's generation.

Blue Skies Urban Farm

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Independent studies conclude that Peak Oil production will occur (or has occurred) between 2005 to 2010 (projected year for peak in parentheses), as follows:

* Association for the Study of Peak Oil (2007)

* Rembrandt Koppelaar, Editor of “Oil Watch Monthly” (2008)

* Tony Eriksen, Oil stock analyst (2008)

* Matthew Simmons, Energy investment banker, (2007)

* T. Boone Pickens, Oil and gas investor (2007)

* U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2005)

* Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Princeton professor and retired shell Geologist (2005)

* Sam Sam Bakhtiari, Retired Iranian National Oil Company geologist (2005)

* Chris Skrebowski, Editor of “Petroleum Review” (2010)

* Sadad Al Husseini, former head of production and exploration, Saudi Aramco (2008)

* Energy Watch Group in Germany (2006)

Independent studies indicate that global crude oil production will now decline from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time, demand will increase. Oil supplies will be even tighter for the U.S. As oil producing nations consume more and more oil domestically they will export less and less. Because demand is high in China, India, the Middle East, and other oil producing nations, once global oil production begins to decline, demand will always be higher than supply. And since the U.S. represents one fourth of global oil demand, whatever oil we conserve will be consumed elsewhere. Thus, conservation in the U.S. will not slow oil depletion rates significantly.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. The independent scientists of the Energy Watch Group conclude in a 2007 report titled: “Peak Oil Could Trigger Meltdown of Society:”

"By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame."


With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, states and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated building systems.

This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed: http://www.peakoilassociates.com/POAnalysis.html

I used to live in NH-USA, but moved to a more sustainable place. Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, pretty, sustainable area with a good climate and good soil? Email: clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or give me a phone call which operates here as my old USA-NH number 603-668-4207. http://survivingpeakoil.blogspot.com/

Brian Kaller said...

CLeyerle, Thank you very much, and I like your blog – I will be checking it out more in the future.

HR, thank you.

Thank you very much. Your blog is a daily ritual for me -- thanks for everything you do.

Thank you, and thanks for introducing me to your own blog. We’ll do everything we can to see that they are not.

That’s great news that the fireflies are coming back – it would be a great relief if it turned out to be only a few dry years.

I sense the same thing, and I love the name for it – the blessed unrest. I hope He is.

RW, Thank you.

I’m honoured – thank you.

You bring up a good point – we live in a time of unique wonders and a unique lack of guarantees. The Irish say similar things here, although “The Troubles” means something more specific. I wonder if those of us who follow the Great Troubles are driven to greater anxiety and fear because we are so few in number, because the rest of the world tells us we are wrong.

Thank you also for your own blog, which I follow regularly – you are doing good work. I'll be in touch.

Thank you. May your daughter keep that passion.

Good to hear from you. You were running for political office talking about climate change years before I heard anything from anyone in the mainstream. Thanks for still being in the game.

Congratulations on your new life! I hope we can pull things back in the right direction too. You have a good point – our grandparents made drastic changes, and we are more pampered and have more power and options than they had.
Thank you.

Thank you -- I like your blog, which I have subscribed to.
I agree there are many reasons to hope. I don’t want to hope unduly, or think of hope as a worthwhile goal in itself, or to think that, because we have escaped disaster in the past, we always will. I do draw hope, though, from knowing that people have resisted their ideologies, ignored propaganda, resisted leaders and striven for peace even when all the forces in the world pushed them otherwise. This is the biggest-ever problem, but we also have the biggest-ever movement to solve it. It’s no guarantee, but it's reason for hope.

Thanks for being a kindred spirit.

Mr. Wirth,
I am familiar with your list. I shy away from predicting a specific number in a specific year, but I know that the oil will plateau and fall sometime soon because the Earth is finite and demand has risen exponentially. I also acknowledge that peak oil, pollution and climate chaos are related issues with similar causes and solutions. Even if everyone is wrong about peak oil, we should still cut our consumption for climate chaos – and even if all experts are wrong on that issue, we should still cut our consumption because of plastic pollution, and so on down the line of world problems.

Good luck in your project.

Beth said...

Thank you for this extraordinarily beautiful, gentle, and authentic piece of writing. I'm not a parent, but as I take my own little steps to live a more rooted and intentional life in our superficial West, your example of what you want to pass on to your daughter is an inspiration.

RSmith said...

I read your post on Christmas eve, my own four year old daughter playing near me. Your words mirrored my own thoughts so closely, and as my daughter came to me and put her hand on my arm, I had to smile for her as I wiped the tears away.

You say "We live a strange life, those of us who follow closely the breaking of the world." This is such a crucial point; most will not recognize or understand the greater collapse occurring around them. For those who are awake, they cannot help but grieve.

But to grieve for the greater loss is different then blame, defeat, or despair.
How to show our daughters (or friends, family, and neighbors)the full tragedy coming towards us without throwing them into soul-crushing despair? Grieving is appropriate, as you say, and adversity is nothing to fear. But despair at a future that fails our expectations saps strength and bleeds the joy out of today.

To be a father today is to learn great insights into the source of human joy, and at the same time to suffer future pain not your own.

We who watch the breaking of the world are not alone. We will not go into this blindly (though many will). Our children will suffer, and their children even more so. But their lives, and ours, can be more meaningful in the face of hardship. For me, the task is to create realistic future expectations for myself and my daughter, without putting too much weight on either of us.

My hope is that we can keep wonder, joy, and spirit alive as things come down.

Let's help each other keep despair at bay.

- Roy

Anonymous said...

Dear Brian;

Thank you so much for your tenderness and strength and spirit.
And thank you from all of us that your daughter has such a sweet father to cherish her. It seems to me, too, that you have spoken to and for the child in each of us, and thus to the parents and grandparents we are and hope to be. I've forwarded this to two website editors who I believe will understand and publish it, who, I believe, understand that pain turns into beauty and darkness into light.

Juan Rafael Santos

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an inspiring essay.

And thank you for having only one child.

After all, the cause of all the troubles you cite is ultimately human overpopulation.

Anonymous said...

Great post - as others have said, very moving. It certainly mirrors what I, as a husband and parent, feels about my children's future.

Anonymous said...

Dear Brian

I am wishing you and your family a happy Christmas, from the other side of the world. Between the lines in your blog entries, I find there emerges a world view that calms me, like Desiderata. As Christmas approaches I read "The moment of darkness" again. The strong calling to Cork, Ireland in that September of 2007, that I did not fully understand at the time, has now been given meaning, through your creation of this piece. I think it is called synchronicity, but whatever it is,I am grateful. Nobody but you could have written this particular peice, because it is unique. Time heals slowly, but the regret remains that I failed to understand the dangers that senseless doom & disillusionment can have on a young bright and sensitive mind. This is what you grappled with in "The moment of darkness". And what difficult concepts to express in words. What a gift to all parents in these uncertain times. With sincere good wishes, Tasman's father.