by Maxwell Bach
Originally posted December 6, 2010
In a recent posting James Howard Kunstler spoke about the failure of many in the environmental community to really grasp the challenge of a post-carbon future. He talked about their “techno-rapture” over cars that run on fuels other than gasoline but lamented their inability to envisage walkable communities or effective public transit systems.
I often feel this same disappointment reading some of the commentary on this site [Chris Martenson.com] (not so much Chris’s official posts) where the conversations are very focused on preparing for the material impacts of peak-everything. I’ve posted some commentary here previously suggesting that material preparedness may in fact be the smaller part of a much larger story. The challenge confronting us isn’t to make it through any transition to a post-carbon future with as many material comforts as possible, but rather to make it through with our integrity intact.
I worry about the kind of people we might become if we construe the task in front of us as merely a logistical challenge, rather than a spiritual one. When faced with novel and significant ethical choices, doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons is no easy task. Virtue, like any form of expertise, requires cultivation and experience. The first step toward this goal is correctly diagnosing your situation. I suggest that being materially prepared and having a reliable reference group (community) is essential but not sufficient.
I believe that the ordeals facing our society and our Government’s response to them will test our core values, our courage and our moral integrity much more than our material resilience. Of course we’re never going to rise to the moral challenge ahead of us if we’re short on the most basic material provisions but once we have these covered its important that we appreciate and prepare for the ethical predicament ahead of us.
I’m always amused by archival footage from the US Atomic Energy Commission which includes such pearls as “Duck & Cover”. Less well known but still just as amusing is the AEC’s advice on backyard nuclear bunkers. Such bunkers were an item of serious discussion in America during the darkest days of the cold war but interestingly not many were ever constructed.
At the time there were debates about whether a nation of shelter-owners would be more or less likely to stumble into nuclear war. People questioned whether a post-nuclear world would be worth surviving at all and the RAND Corporation ran scenarios on the moral dilemmas of locking the shelter door on family, friends and strangers. The threat of a nuclear holocaust and the possibility of surviving it in a bunker forced people to contemplate questions about the meaning of life, mortality, charity and personal morality. Their answer, aided no doubt by the high costs and dubious practicality of such shelters, was more or less; “let’s just forget about it”. This time, we won’t be so lucky. The questions will demand an answer.
The advent of peak-everything will force each of us to address at a very real and personal level some of the central questions of life, e.g:
• What constitutes a good life and how should I live mine?
• If the norms of my current civilized society no longer apply, what moral framework will I live by?
• What will be my moral boundaries?
It’s important to answer these questions for yourself sooner rather than later. Egregious moral lapses usually occur in unfamiliar situations where the normal moorings which regulate our moral reasoning and conduct are absent. This situation could arise for many of us if there is a sudden and serious energy or financial crisis. What concerns me most is the behavior of our governments during such a crisis.
What will you do if your government starts to enact laws and policies which you find morally objectionable? Would you stand up and risk their censure or would you pretend not to notice programs or incidents which didn’t directly affect you? Think of the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930’s. The Nazis were democratically elected in the midst of a crisis. They enacted viable solutions to some of Germany’s most pressing economic problems which gave them some initial legitimacy but the scope and ferocity of their racial agenda took everyone by surprise.
Whilst very few people were directly involved in the worst of their atrocities, many knew of them and simply “looked away” perhaps out of fear, impotence, or nonchalance. Years later the complicity associated with passivity came back to haunt a lot of people both publicly and privately. Quite a few prominent individuals including Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian President and UN Secretary General, found themselves exposed to an unforgiving retrospective moral revaluation.
If the comforts and conveniences of our everyday life are suddenly suspended because of an energy crisis or second financial meltdown it would help to be mentally, morally and spiritually prepared for the worst. In this case the worst could be the further reaches of what we might to do to one another – or rather allow our governments to do – out of fear, self-interest or indifference.
The blogosphere is alive with allegations of government conspiracies, plots, coups and connivances. If just one of these many contentions turns out to have a grain of truth, it would be incumbent upon us to take a stand against it and risk the Government’s wrath. Looking away would mean complicity. I think government incompetence rather than malfeasance is the greater danger in any crisis but even incompetence demands we take a stand against it; especially if its burden falls on the most vulnerable in our society.
Those of us who are better informed and equipped from the outset are likely to endure any crisis more successfully than those who are not. This places certain moral obligations upon us. Rather than retreating into locally privileged (patrolled) communities of like-minded and prepared families and ignoring the plight of people outside our community, it will be incumbent upon us to think and act on a larger scale. Like Mohandas Gandhi, this may involve us risking or even sacrificing many of the privileges we’ve worked so assiduously to accrue.
There are many people in our broader community who have insufficient resources to meet their immediate needs, much less prepare for an uncertain future. What we and our governments do – or don’t do – for these people in a crisis will be the measure of our morality. So far, the prognosis for such people is not looking good. The possibility of localized apartheid developing between prepared & unprepared communities is high. Such differences are likely to be exacerbated by any government response. Limiting our moral boundaries to our own local homogeneous community is unethical.
We all condemned the citizens of Johannesburg in the 1980’s when Soweto lay smoldering on their doorstep but we’ll need to be vigilant less we fall into the same trap ourselves. As noted elsewhere on this site, we can’t help the disadvantaged by joining them so somehow we’ll have to strike a balance. What that balance point will be for you & your family will be something you’ll have to work out for yourselves, depending on your own unique situation.
Having well considered responses to the Socratic questions listed above may help you keep your perspective while others about you are loosing theirs. This is what moral leadership is all about. Once things settle down it would be satisfying indeed to look back on your conduct over this period with pride rather than equivocation or a cringing sense of guilt.