Thursday, 5 February 2009
I really try to post every day, but Ireland had a small emergency this week. It's not the banking crisis, or a Ukrainian-style fuel shortage, or wildfires, or earthquakes. Instead, it's snowing.
Snow is rare in Ireland -- we get it a few times a winter, I take pictures, and then it goes away. We are as far north as Labrador in Canada, where until recently polar bears lived, but the Gulf Stream bathes the island in waters from the Caribbean. It doesn't feel like the Bahamas by the time it gets up here and sprays you over the rocks, but it is warm enough to keep our island always cool and misty, never hot and never cold.
In the last few days, however, it has snowed heavily, traffic slowed to a crawl past roadside accidents, and my bus ride from my job in Dublin, which ordinarily takes 50 minutes one-way, took four hours Tuesday night.
Four hours on the bus. One way. That was the extreme, but I feel like I haven't been doing anything but working, sleeping, and sitting on the bus. And trying to finish an article for an American magazine. Oh, and when I came home, there was no heat-- our boiler had begun to leak carbon monoxide, so we shut it off. The Girl just took it in stride and snuggled up with a hot-water bottle and what she called her "emergency toe blankets," her socks.
These events drove home for me how we deal with change, based purely on what we consider normal. Ireland’s temperate climate is one reason the land is so lush and green, the reason we can still harvest vegetables through the winter. Rural people here are a hardy bunch, and many people still possess a simplicity and self-reliance that we are trying to emulate – but they are no more prepared for Arizona or Labrador than they are for snakes.
Minnesota regularly receives twenty times more snow than Ireland received this week, and everyone goes on as normal, putting neon softballs on their car antennae so cars can see each other over the man-high snowbanks. Commuters, elderly, charities, city managers and shopkeepers expect there will be snow at some point, and they have thought through what they will do when it happens, and when it happens they activate their emergency plans and go on as normal.
Similarly, the Irish summer “heatwave” of 30 degrees (86 Fahrenheit) leaves people panting and red-faced, and people don’t believe that we ran track in 40 degrees (100 F) or more. I explain that, before air conditioning, families in my hometown spent summer nights sleeping on the porch or on the grass of a nearby field, had ceiling fans, used water holes, and daubed their heads with cool cloths, and life went on.
People can adapt to many circumstances, from the Kalahari to the Arctic, and this gives me some confidence that we will survive, as a species, the coming climatic changes. My priority is to get most of us there without a die-off, keeping as much of the natural world intact as possible, and keeping alive the knowledge we have today.
Preparing for the future can require some new infrastructure – the government could have had a fleet of snow ploughs ready, or residents could have had snow tires – but how much money do we want to spend buying and maintaining things that might never be used? We can’t be Batman, always having the right thing on his utility belt for whatever the episode required – each of us only has so much time and money.
Much of the preparation people need, though, is internal: the fewer expectations we have and the more contingencies we are prepared for, the less disoriented we are when things change. I expect that most of the accidents on the road could have been avoided if more people had some idea how to drive in snow. In the same way, people I know who foresaw a global storm ahead were least shocked when it began, and were the least affected.
The more settled people are – the more they assume the presence of money and Internet access and the absence of disease and riots, for example – the more unsettled they will be when these things change. I read that during the Great Depression in America or the post-Soviet collapse in Russia, it was middle-aged men, settled into a stable life, who most succumbed to distress and suicide, while others adapted.
Perhaps this is why this economic crisis has affected different acquaintances of mine differently. I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of this crisis, or claiming that one can prepare for anything in a few voluntary steps. I am saying that friends of mine who grew their own food, had backup energy, lived close to work, cooked for themselves, picked weeds for dinner or fished hour-old cuisine from restaurant bins found their lives little changed after hundreds of billions evaporated from Wall Street.
None of knows exactly what will come in the decades ahead, but it seems likely that the simpler your life is now, the less likely you are to be affected if fuel shortages, depression and freak weather enforce an involuntary simplicity on your neighbours. My hope is that such people also are mentally preparing to be leaders, to spring into action when their neighbours need them.
Top photo: Snowfall at night in Dublin. Bottom photo: a horse and carriage outside my office during a lull in the snow.