A summer driving trip from the southwestern United States to northern Idaho brought back memories of a similar trip I completed two years ago.
In the summer of 2009, I drove from Tucson, Arizona to southern New Mexico via a circuitous route that included much of the nation’s heartland and a few days of rest in western Nebraska. I covered 4,200 miles while crisscrossing 11 states and all four time zones in the continental US. I circumambulated Kansas, and at one point drove close enough to spit on the Sunflower State. But it didn’t seem worth the time or the saliva.
Summer in the Heartland
I drove slowly and stopped often, primarily because the Obama administration’s Keynesian approach to propping up the industrial economy necessitates throwing money at the highway departments of every state in the country. The attendant “shovel-ready projects” are clear examples of the lengths to which industrial humans will go to sustain the unsustainable, maintain the immaterial, and generally restore the irredeemable for a few more years of economic and environmental lunacy.
The many miles and frequent pauses reveal to any sentient being the sheer lunacy of the living arrangements we’ve built for ourselves.
Within the span of a couple generations, we abandoned a durable, finely textured, life-affirming set of living arrangements characterized by self-sufficient family farms intermixed with small towns that provided commerce, services, and culture.
Worse yet, we traded that model for a coarse-scaled arrangement wholly dependent on ready access to cheap fossil fuels. Then we ratcheted up the madness to rely on businesses that use, almost exclusively, a warehouse-on-wheels approach to just-in-time delivery of unnecessary devices designed for rapid obsolescence and disposal.
Simply ingenious, wouldn’t you say?
And that’s not all
The entire midwestern region, formerly abundant with a multitude of edible crops, currently is brimming with a single commodity: #2 corn. It’s Roundup-ready, at that, just to throw a bucket of insulting acid into the face of reason. Roundup-resistant weeds are popping up throughout the region as we bring Farmageddon to the heartland and eventually to the world.
Most of the corn, which is essentially inedible until it is processed (i.e., pummeled with inordinate quantities of fossil fuels), is watered with the last remaining drops of the Ogallala Aquifer, and brought to the surface with the same finite fluid used to power our trucks and cars.
Verdant fields of ethanol dreams are interrupted occasionally by a field of soybeans; without rotations of legumes, the soil would be so depleted of nitrogen by king corn that it wouldn’t support even the great corn desert. The corn fills our bellies with death-inducing faux sugar.
But we willingly trade some of that “food” for fuel because the associated dependence on automobiles allows us to burn off the final inches of life-giving topsoil to promote our culture of death in rapid-transit, individualized death-traps.
Who could pass up a deal like that?
Txt me, ‘kay?
Obnoxiously ubiquitous cell-phone towers line the edges of the cornfields adjacent to the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System (“Celebrating 50 Years, 1956-2006!”).
Each of these completely unnecessary towers of mortality — which serve only to duplicate extant infrastructure — kills several thousand birds each year. Yet every imperialist has a cell phone, regardless of the death to songbirds. Don’t even get me started on the Coltan in the cell-phone batteries mined from the Congo, because I’d rather not think about the brutal lives and tortuous deaths of the Congolese women and children we treat as collateral damage along our imperial path.
Seemingly every tenth cell-phone tower marks a casino, yet another ubiquitous structure we’d be far better off without. These businesses extract money from the poor as they pursue the something-for-nothing goal upon which our culture has become based.
Made in the good old US of China
If it’s not a casino, it’s a distribution center for this country’s rapidly waning commercial sector.
We no longer make much of anything in this country, but we move around ton after ton of cheap plastic crap to the Targets and Wal-Marts that have displaced family owned businesses in every town and city in the country while exporting disaster capitalism throughout the world. Any small piece of beauty we might otherwise find between the local Wal-Mart and the nearby Target is obscured by the curvature of the earth. Our strip-malls are so ugly even winos won’t hang out there. There’s not enough Prozac in the world to make them seem nice.
Are these places worth caring about? Are they worth defending via limitless war?
Finally, then, we come to the most ludicrous part of the entire endeavor: suburbia, filled with McMansions. This not-quite-country, not-quite-city living arrangement requires people to buy one of everything for every house — except cars, of which we need at least two — to live far from work, far from play, and far from the things we “need” to buy.
Hundreds of acres of shoddily constructed, castle-like symbols of self-indulgence are separated from equally coarse-scaled places we use to grow “food,” conduct “commerce” in our “service” economy, and otherwise live civilized lives. As has often been the case, today’s symbols of gluttony are tomorrow’s death traps.
As usual, I’m quick to point out the silver lining in this otherwise disastrous narrative: Better days lie ahead. How could they not?
The light at the end of the tunnel
In the near future, we’ll return to a durable set of living arrangements.
Since we need about 50 million additional gardeners to support the 300 million people in this nation, and because nearly everybody in the industrialized world would rather push electrons in a cube farm than push a shovel in a garden, I don’t foresee us voluntarily returning to the agrarian age.
Not only are a majority of people unaware of the predicament we face — thanks to the media, every level of government, and our own self-absorbed preference for the bliss of ignorance — but there’s simply no leadership in the industrialized world as we face an inevitable but unprecedented economic contraction. As a result, I suspect most areas will bypass agricultural pursuits and plunge ahead to the post-industrial Stone Age.
Once again, daily life will be characterized by a finely textured, life-affirming, durable set of arrangements characterized by respect for each other and reverence for the land, and accompanied by a solid dose of self-reliance.
Wedded to consumption
The point of my circuitous route in that summer two years gone by: a wedding on the in-law side of the family. The newlyweds were twenty-something Army officers, and the event fittingly provided the perfect example of the malevolence needed to maintain the industrial economy at the apex of western civilization.
Held in a venue designed and constructed to celebrate American military prowess, the reception allowed the guests to enjoy flight simulators between bouts of gorging on meat, fat, sugar, and alcohol. Each of us was allowed to “fly” a fighter jet and blast the enemy. I was a tad disappointed, though: I didn’t get to bomb a children’s hospital in the name of bringing democracy to a poverty-stricken, oil-rich country.
For those readers who would like to impress upon me that I’m an imperialist, too, or that “freedom isn’t free,” don’t bother. In a heartbeat, I’d give up every aspect of the industrial economy, even if it cost me my life, to know western civilization was dead and gone.
And for those who believe we’re really free, take a look around. See the security cameras. Notice the listening devices. Pay attention to the monitoring devices that record and report every transaction you complete. These tyrannies are among the thousands of minor costs we pay for so-called freedom from terrorists. The larger costs are borne by non-human species and people in non-industrial cultures every minute of every day.
I took a break from the wedding festivities to spend a little time outdoors as darkness was falling. In a few minutes, I was able to observe far more beauty than marked the cultural ceremony or the route along the way: the cry of a red-tailed hawk drew my eye to two hawks flying low over the treetops. Shortly afterward, a brilliant harvest moon scaled the eastern horizon.
World without end?
My return trip from northern Idaho to the southwestern US was an exemplar of climate chaos.
The route from northern Idaho to central Utah was filled with one soggy adventure after another as unseasonably wet weather drenched the northern half of the country during this year’s spring.
From central Utah south, on the other hand, the aridity was palpably crisp. Driving into the planned community of Anthem, Arizona, on the northern fringe of Phoenix, smoky skies nearly obscured the sea of tile roofs behind locked suburban gates as the temperature soared above 115 F (46 C). Sadly, this arid, southwestern city represents the American Dream for which most people are striving. More sadly, many of them will find what they are looking for, even as they contribute to the death of the dream they chase: an overheated planet deeply enmeshed in dire environmental straits.
I’m reminded often of the hawks and the harvest moon. They provide trenchant reminders that hope springs eternal in, and from, the natural world. They remind me there is still something worth saving from the ravages of civilization.
But is there world enough, and time? And, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, are there enough of us who actually care about saving the remaining shards of the living planet?
–Guy McPherson for Transition Voice