My brother’s keeper

O Brother fugitives.

The three fugitives move through thee brush to get to cousin Wash's farm. Image:

Part two in a four-part series.

The last time we met the boys in this series, the ones who “done escaped off the farm” in the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, slick-tongued Everett McGill (George Clooney) was pontificating that “it’s a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.”

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a four-part series on the challenges of telling the peak oil story. The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? will help tell the tale throughout. Part One: Oh brother, not peak oil.

There’s another vignette from the movie that offers some more helpful wisdom to the peak oil and climate change community.

Just a bit earlier in the story, peacefully asleep in a barn loft while laying over at cousin Wash’s, the fugitives are awakened by the bullhorn of the authorities who are there to haul the boys back to the joint. At once Everett sees that cousin Wash had turned the three escapees in for bounty money. But Pete (John Turturro) refuses to believe it, shaking his fist at Everett and yelling that he wouldn’t, that “Wash is kin!”

But from down below, cozied right up to the law, Wash calls up sheepishly, “Sorry Pete! I know we’re kin! But they got this here Depression on and I got to do fer me and mine.”

And it’s at that meeting place of fear and self-interest where the peak oil narrative faces many of its greatest challenges.

The brain trust

Undoubtedly each person who takes the implications of peak oil seriously must first prepare his or her household for the coming changes in our world.

Obviously if you’re not prepared for the future yourself, how can you be a help to others getting ready for peak oil and climate change? And if you’re not prepared, how can you feel more secure and more able to be resilient? If you’re not prepared, how can you tell the energy and climate story, or give advice to others?

You can’t.

So, please do make your own plan for resilience. Do store emergency supplies of food and water—you should anyway, even without a potential block in the energy supply line arising from future oil shocks.

Be prepared,” as the Boy Scouts say, for whatever might come. Flood, drought, blackout, oil shortages, rising oceans, visits from fugitive kin. Whatever.

We’re in a tight spot

But there are challenges in solitary home preparation, too.

Because the peak oil community includes an undeniable strand of survivalist thinking, including a very real element of cousin Wash’s unhealthy “I got to do fer me and mine” mentality, solo survivalism is something we need to look at a bit more skeptically.

But first, I ask that you please don’t misunderstand me. I’ll repeat: yes, individuals and families should make emergency preparedness plans. But once that’s done, solo survival should take its rightful place as the fallback, not the vanguard position, for any individual or family unit.

A singular focus on solo survival fosters vulnerability because it:

  • Promotes isolationist behavior, a retreat from community
  • Encourages secretiveness
  • Risks turning neighbor against neighbor
  • Dehumanizes others
  • Ratchets up fear, mistrust and possibly paranoia

“I’m with you fellers”

It’s an old saw that there’s “strength in numbers.” Maybe that’s what makes it true.

In cousin Wash’s case perhaps there’s a bit of a moral quandary. After all, Everett, Pete and Delmar did each commit the crimes that sent them to prison in the first place. And Everett and Delmar aren’t even Wash’s kin, so there’s no blood allegiance there.

But we, the viewer, can see that no one in the fugitive trio is violent, and that Wash’s situation is hardly more hopeful as a free but poor man, unable alone to make his fallow farm thrive. But did attempting to earn some bounty scratch really justify turning in the same three who had sat down with him to horse stew and conversation that very night? Especially when one is his kin?

I’ll just say maybe, and leave each of you dear readers to tease out that moral conundrum on your own.

But looking at the situation more broadly, where we all find ourselves in the same peak oil boat, and in which we’ll all likely be swamped by its tides to one degree or another, do we really want to find ourselves at odds with every other man to only maybe gain a slippery new toehold on fortune? Do we want to wear the constant posture of fear, and move about with the attitude of suspicion and sly opportunism, ready to turn on anyone and anything just to “do fer me and mine?”

I don’t think so.

Sure, the instinct for personal survival will always be a part of the human apparatus. But we’re more than instinct alone. And there is another way.

In the mart of competitive commerce

In the US we have a rich tradition of community, public schools, volunteerism, churches and other places of worship, gatherings, cultural freedom.

But we also have its opposite, too. The notion of rugged individualism as mythologized in the essentially American Western genre and enshrined in economics as Capitalism.

Capitalism, while offering opportunity, promotes exploitation in equal measure. Rugged individualism, while offering a chance to get ahead and make your mark, too often pits man against man at the expense of our nature as social beings.

Even if one believes in the worthiness of trade, as I do, and is pro-business, as I am, it’s disingenuous to imagine that the mere presence of a competitive environment means an inherently level playing field.

Capitalism has lead to excessive corporate power, among other inequities. And the excessive reach of big corporate power is nowhere more at home than within its milieu, the ruling class, carried out by lawyering minions who pursue every advantage-seeking whim into legal code. Just look at the entrenched advantages for the oil industry over clean energy to get a small glimpse of this in action. Myriad other examples give the lie to our notions of free market and equal access.

And I won’t even mention the definition of a corporate state…

The issue is that together this invites not only a backlash, but feeds a subtle cultural disposition of “Every man for himself and God against all.”

Whatever its merits, Capitalism produces its fair share of discontents too, brought on, not least of all, by the apparent commodification of everything. Each moment, every relationship, a transaction. Exploitation. Alienation. Every man an island in a vacuum. The very things that have left so many people feeling so inexplicably discontent over the past century of unchecked industrial growth.

That discontent has spurred more folks in recent years to sense that something’s missing, driving them to seek community and to build social networks both online and off. It’s made the value of unity and common cause rise up again in pursuit of something greater, something beyond politics and media yammering about how gridlock at the top only reflects the nation’s mood everywhere else. In a sense, discontent with all that nonsense has given birth to renewed connections of all sorts, and also to the burgeoning Transition Movement in the US.

In this hopeful discontent lives the rich and fertile matter of the stories to shift the tide. Tapping into that is as much, if not more, the way forward than is another fist-shaking rant about the rising cost of oil and government in denial. It’s more potent and alluring and enduring than all the tales of doom lived or doom to come. And it’s far more compelling than packing your basement full of canned goods, living in mortal fear of an imagined overnight collapse, and then telling no one around you about the triple crises of peak oil, climate change and economic crisis lest they find you “a might touched.” Better, safer, you might think, to keep it a secret and go it alone. And anyway, who has time to join groups and do things with others when daily life is so demanding?

The answer is to reassess your priorities.

Life today is all about connecting, even if the issues that bring us together seem dismal, as dismal as our three ex-cons with their scant prospects and a bounty on their heads. As dismal as many a defaulted homeowner might feel right about now.

This here De-pression

And that brings me to depression.

Or as cousin Wash says, “They got this here Depression on…”

Who of us is not concerned with a $1.6 quadrillion derivatives bubble chasing itself down the chute of once-was future prosperity? Amazingly this is an issue that seems to unite right and left, libertarians, Tea Partiers and maybe even those elusive socialists so prominently mentioned on talk radio but so hard to find in real life politics.

The bottom line is, the shit’s hitting the fan. Oil prices up. Food prices way up. Trenchant joblessness. A comical policy of quantitative easing leaving ordinary folks transfixed between self-evident inflation in the cost of goods, and mired in fear about when the last card in the house of cards is going to bring that bubble down and with it, ignite a deflationary spiral.

No matter how much the mainstream press wants to hawk a recovery, few are buying it.

The Long Emergency is unmistakably here. And we in the peak oil community have got a job to do.

Share of the treasure

We need to tell the peak oil story wherever we can using sensible means and straightforward channels. Letters to your local editor citing the 2010 International Energy Agency announcement of peak oil and what that might mean for your community for starters. The US military Joint Operating Environment report as well. The announcement of the implications of peak oil by a German military think tank. By Lloyds of London and the UK’s Peak Oil Summit. These are easy, and they translate into “don’t take my word for it…”

But step two is committing yourself more than ever in this pivotal year to shoring up the bonds of community with all you’ve got.

Take the easy steps. If you’re a member or regular attendee at a church, join or start a sustainability or resilience committee. Like all coffers, church coffers are down as giving slides. Help make the church budget go further by looking for ways to cut costs while saving services and energy and promoting renewal, such as with a church vegetable garden. Bring generations together.

Finally get involved with that community garden initiative in your neighborhood or town. Organize a plant swap at the beginning of the season and a seed swap at the end of the season. Make it a pot luck both times. Get to know your neighbors.

Plan a hunting party. Learn to brew beer. To make beef jerky. To dry apple slices. To ferment sauerkraut. Not necessarily to think survival, but to be capable, do things with others, and reap the rewards of spending time with people in non-commercial, TV-free activities.

Go ask granny to teach you how to can, and then hold a non-threatening and totally neutral canning party with a bunch of friends. If being blunt about peak oil wouldn’t work with that crowd, leave it out and just have fun. But if you can edge the peak oil story into the conversation, do. Help your neighbors become aware of just where oil prices are going, and what it means for budgets, warmth, cooling, transportation, activities, health and money in the bank. Always tell it as an opportunity to get back to what really matters.

Be the one who organizes a car pooling hub in your area. Join a bike riding club.

For those of you with more observant and equally concerned friends, hold that Crash Course one-day marathon session at your home. Make it a party. Voice concerns, and show that your hearts still beat and your smiles still work at the same time.

Learn to knit with your kids and then start collecting skeins of yarn, preferably wool, at yard sales and thrift stores. Same with candle or soap making. It’s just a hobby, just a back pocket skill, that’s all.

Hang together

The bottom line is that if you’ve got to “do fer me and mine” then see your block as “me and mine.” See your neighborhood as “me and mine.” See your town as “me and mine” Your state. Our nation.

No, you can’t solve all the problems of your town, your state, or our country on your own. But by seeing us all as “me and mine” you may be able to help foster a unity that is so desperately needed after a decade and a half where “polarized” has not only been the buzzword, but an artificial and destructive description of the American spirit.

All major religions, ethical and moral systems tell us about “what really matters.” It’s always people, relationships, community, togetherness. It’s always more important than money, or acquisition, and is always defined as “real happiness” when you’re in it together, come what may.

“If we don’t hang together, we will surely hang separately,” said Benjamin Franklin.

Me and mine prefer it together, with you and your’n.

Join me next time when we meet the Soggy Bottom Boys to teach us why peak oil needs a band. (In the meantime, watch a 30-second Coen Brothers ad spoof debunking clean coal technology.)

— Lindsay Curren

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  1. says

    Lindsey this post is perfect for Fort Collins, CO right now. We are taking the first steps to become a Transition Town. A third meeting covering chaps 4 and 5 of Transition Handbook is tomorrow. I struggle with who transitions. Erik has a vision (Noah’s Ark No Way) Dimitri Orlov has another. Your post is great because many of the older women here grew up on small farms and already have the skills you write about. I will repost … following fair use guidelines and with attribution (always). Thanks

    • says

      Thanks so much, Gypsy Chief. I hope the article helps spur conversation and encourages folks in their efforts. And I love the ideas of our elders being re-engaged in our communities. They have so much to share, and in too many ways we have treated them as disposable rather than honoring their experience, wisdom, perspective, and good old-fashioned skills. Let’s hope we begin to approach them differently going forward.



  2. krystelle says

    Thanks for emphasising, the whole “hang together” approach, and pointing out that personal preparedness is just the first of many steps.

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