Friday night, while strolling downtown after dinner, my wife and I came upon a young man seated on a Mexican blanket on the sidewalk offering instant readings into the future. I would’ve kept walking, as it was hot and sticky and I wanted to stroll off a full belly. But Lindsay, a fan of astrology and street entertainment, pulled quickly aside and engaged the busker.
With looks like a younger, more emo version of the bald business correspondent on CNN, Ali Velshi (who recently told Jon Stewart that the stock market is like a mood ring), the oracle was offering “Free Fortunes — For Entertainment Only.”
Tea lights and smoke from Nag Champa helped Velshi Jr. lure passersby to join him on his blanket. He then offered a cotton bag printed with Sanskrit letters and invited his guest to reach in and pick out four stones. Each was carved with a Celtic rune (which may not really be Celtic after all).
Naturally, Lindsay went first. The runes showed that she’d faced some challenges, but, that with a long season of planting, she’d soon yield a harvest from her work. Crouched on an overturned 2-gallon plastic bucket, I went next. Though I pulled different runes, the result was much the same — first challenges (either moral or legal), then triumph.
Street soothsayers must know that most people enjoy getting a fortunate fortune.
And we were both entertained enough to engage the rune-thrower in conversation. I’ll call him Jason and, it turned out, he was yet another pilgrim on the journey out of the money economy.
As in a Hank Williams song, Jason had just lost both job and girl.
But he was hardly down and out. On the bright side, he’d just gained 52 acres of Allegheny mountain forest from his mom, who abandoned her back-to-the-land dream and left her son with an unexpected career opportunity as a farmer.
This lord of trees and hills and streams oversaw his fiefdom from a teepee. And when calling at local towns like ours, as he did a couple times a week, he overnighted in the bed of a small red pickup truck that must’ve been safe enough to snooze under the stars while probably getting OK gas mileage too.
Just another word for nothing left to lose
He picked up a few bucks from busking and a few more from occasional landscaping jobs. This covered his gas and let him shop for the few things he seemed to need every week. He grew his own vegetables and planned to put in more produce next year, maybe even enough to start selling on the local farmers’ market circuit.
As teepees tend to be, Jason’s was off the grid. He had hooked up a bicycle to a generator and he said that a couple hours of peddling would make enough juice to run a sound system for fifteen minutes. And though I wondered how exact he was being with his numbers, this arrangement sounded like a good fitness program but a poor source of on-site, renewable generation. I suggested that he could use a solar panel. He agreed and said he was clearing some trees for a place to install one.
Guy-on-a-bike-peddling-for-power reminded me of the “energy slaves” — the fuels that run our cars, homes and factories, replacing the muscle-power of yore — that peak oil people like to talk about. Each citizen of an industrialized society has the equivalent of a hundred or more of these hidden workers at our disposal every day. These energy slaves allow us and our fellow commoners to enjoy luxuries like air travel and hot water from the tap that Louis XIV never could have imagined.
The BBC even ran a show about it a couple years ago, “The Human Power Station,” pitting a room of stationery bicyclists wired to a generator against a middle-class British family of four flipping on lights, opening the fridge and sitting in front of the telly. By the end of the day, the bikers were exhausted.
As oil, coal and natural gas continue to deplete in the future, soon we all may be using a lot more muscle power in our daily lives. That will be a practical lesson that burning carbohydrates to move muscle is no match for burning hydrocarbons to run machines.
Busking, odd jobs and barter
We chatted with Jason about how we’d both lost jobs in the last couple years and how it had changed our lives. He listened sympathetically. We had no health insurance or retirement plans and our income was cut in half. Yet, cobbling together part-time work, contract consulting and entrepreneurship, we were still busy all week, though now we took our compensation more in love than money. We had also gained a new appreciation for the domestic arts. We ate out less and cooked at home more. We’d started tending a couple plots at a community garden while becomimg sort of creative about bartering, not just food but also our skills — like donating a website to a non-profit outdoor theater and getting season tickets and an ad in their program in exchange.
After about 45 minutes, we got up to go. But in a post-job ritual that seems to becoming more common and hopefully less awkward with each passing month, we exchanged cards for our own own home-created businesses. Then we wished each other well.
On the way home, Lindsay and I talked about how much we enjoyed the little diversion. Especially what it said about this post-money economy that so many people in the peak oil and Transition movements are talking about these days.
“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” asks the gospel of Matthew.
Jason lost his whole world — at least as modern society would define it. But he seemed to be going along and getting along.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice