The Age of Consequences


Is your future as a gardener with a farmstand shop? Photo: via Flickr.

As we continue into the centuries-old, but only recently acknowledged era of destruction and extinction, it’s apparent the current model is not working.

Largely too fearful of individual retribution to disrupt the industrial culture that’s making us sick, making us crazy, and killing us, we hang tightly to the only system we’ve ever known. Pathetically reluctant to consider what lies beyond the omnicidal industrial machine, we cling to a system that has failed to nurture the living planet, human individuals, and human communities.

At some point, we simply lost track of the importance of communities, human and otherwise. Along the way to becoming a nation of multitasking, Twittering, Facebook “friends” we abandoned the ability to connect meaningfully, viscerally, individually. If we are to thrive during the post-carbon era, we’ll need to create groups of straight-talking, look-’em-in-the-eye, mean-what-you-say, say-what-you-mean, self-reliant, individuals who are not afraid to ask for help from the neighbors and who, when asked, readily offer assistance.

How it was

I know you hate those stories that start with, “When I was a kid, ….” But regardless, here goes.

I grew up in a tiny, backwoods, red-neck logging town. By the time I was 18 years old, I’d seen more bar fights than first-run movies. I knew that when a man was driving home after getting whipped in a bar fight, and the man who beat him up drove drunkenly into a ditch on the way home, the guy who got pummeled had no choice but to stop and give a hand to the guy who whipped him. If the whippee didn’t stop to help, and anybody in town found out, he’d be better off driving to the next state than hanging around.

Helping neighbors in need was not optional. The benighted community of my youth was a worthless pile of crap. But to me and my neighbors, it was our worthless pile of crap, and an outsider who threatened people in our town would’ve been better off bobbing for apples in a bucket of piranhas.

The people who lived in that town, like the ones who comprise my current neighbors, are shoulder-to-the-wheel, down-to-earth folks who care about their community.

For a diametrically opposed perspective, see contemporary suburbia. Our self-proclaimed independence is a bad joke made possible only by cheap energy. As we leave cheap energy in our wake, it becomes increasingly clear the joke’s on us.

Viva convivium

As Dmitry Orlov points out with his usual brilliant wit, communities arise organically. Despite the multimillion dollar efforts of countless scientists at Biosphere II, for example, the resulting collection of communities is a pale and pathetic imitation of the naturally occurring ecosystems they are designed to replicate.

As with ecological communities, we know little about human communities and what makes them “work.” Nonetheless, we fill tomes about both kinds of communities.

Although communities are self-organizing, we are able to nurture them and therefore influence species composition. We can plant trees and pull weeds. We can add water and compost. In fact, we do all these things, and we call the result a garden. Scale matters: I’m a huge fan of gardens, for reasons that run from healthy food to healthy psyches, but I detest farms. The former characterize Eden, the latter civilization.

As with ecological communities, I think we can and should nurture our human communities, recognizing and encouraging positive elements and weeding out negative ones. We may not be capable of building communities, but we can work with the ones we’ve got to the betterment of individuals who contribute to the common good.

And, as with ecological communities, our ability to nurture human communities will vary. Every community is unique, and will require a unique set of approaches.

Location, location, location

Location is vitally important.

Try nurturing community in the suburban wasteland characterizing most American cities, and you’ll run smack into the horrifically omnivorous maw of culture. If the most visible portion of every house is the garage, good luck organizing the neighbors into building community gardens fed by harvested rainwater and humanure. If it works in the short run, be sure to keep tabs on all the unprepared, self-indulgent free riders you’ll need to feed and water in the longer run. If it works in the long run, it will be only because the community stops extracting life’s vital materials from the adjacent countryside. In other words, it will work because the city ceases being a city.

Community starts at home.

If you can find somebody who is willing to take you in, I propose pooling resources. Given the increasing poverty in a nation addicted to the stock markets, this counter-cultural notion — which goes against the American cultural ideal of “independence” — is starting to make a lot of sense. I suspect we’ll see a lot more collaboration and a lot less ego-laden, look-at-me-and-my-mansion competition in the years ahead.

Chop wood, carry water

After establishing a home-based beachhead, the remainder involves common sense and little else. This ain’t rocket surgery, after all. Make yourself valuable by finding a niche. Provide a service, or set of services, integral to the daily lives of your neighbors. What do they do?

They drink water. So find a way to extract, purify, and deliver water when municipal power is no longer available.

They eat. So find a way to produce healthy food at a smaller scale than the big-box grocery store. Grow chickens, ducks, and goats. Make yogurt, butter, and cheese. And then develop a means of preparing the food without fossil fuels. Think drying racks, sun ovens, and firewood.

They wear clothes. So stock up on needles and strong thread, and sell your skills as a tailor, or even a mender.

They sleep. Make ’em blankets. Or, if you have the requisite skills, beds and other furniture.

Can you care for animals, including human animals? They have tender psyches and bodies that were not designed for the rigors to which they’re about to be subjected. They need therapy, just like the rest of us, and they’ll soon need a lot more. Can you provide it, at a finer scale than the current model, and can you do so by exchanging gifts or barter?

Are you a medical herbalist? Can you become one?

People need respite from the drudgery of labor. Imagine what our lives will be like when we can’t take our annual summer driving vacation, much less the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe or the Caribbean. Can you spin a yarn or play a tune? I recommend traveling minstrel as an occupation about to make a serious comeback, along with vigorous local theaters operating with minimal sets and electricity.

They want educated people, and some of them want educated children. If you can write a coherent paragraph and perform long division, you’ll be in constant demand in a world without hand calculators. If you can teach children to perform these miracles, get set to launch your career as a post-carbon teacher.

They have sex. Never mind the world’s oldest profession: The potential for midwives and childcare should be obvious.

Welcome to the Age of Consequences

I could go on, but the point should be clear by now. As we leave the Age of Entitlement and transition into the Age of Consequences, everybody will need to make a contribution to his or her community. Those who are unwilling or unable to make a contribution will not be welcome.

If you value living in a particular place, think about tight-knit Stone Age communities or contemporary Amish communities. The worst possible fate for an individual is to be shunned, because that means you’ll need to find your own way in a large, unknown world. In short, we thrive when our community thrives. We suffer when our community suffers.

I’m certain I’m missing many things. But any number can play, so please help me out. What skills should we learn in anticipation of a contracting economy and therefore an enlarging world? What other services can we provide, within the constraints of a small piece of land and little money?

And what about you? How are you preparing for a life of service in the Age of Consequences?

–Guy McPherson, Transition Voice

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  1. Robin Datta says

    Heriarchies are vertically oriented and vertically integrated. They encourage individuals to integrate impersonally into the hierarchy by working to support and sustain the hierarchical system, and to seek sustenance and support from the hierarchical system: making horizontal connections to others in community is ignored and even disincentivized. When the hierarchy disintegrates, those depending on it are left high and dry.

  2. Constance says

    Guy, this is one of your better columns since it gives some concrete suggestions for new lifestyles.

  3. says

    Great article Guy. I have not been able to be as specific as you in terms of skills and value offerings to the community, but I do have a number of strategic impulses that have revealed themselves over the last few years, that I can try to share here. My experience so far is that the vast majority of folks are not yet able to appreciate the value of skills, products and services you mention. In fact, such thinking is threatening to those that gain a sense of security from operating/competing in the status quo. And, thus, there is an emotional component to your point wherein we must learn to live with and even withstand the feelings of not belonging that come along with moving out of denial. This makes the transition excruciating personal, and a cosmic moment for (trans) personal/emotional growth.

    Clearly learning to live more locally is at the core of this discussion. What follows is then, in my opinion, a practice of unraveling all the ways that we participate in the homo-colossus culture. Quitting a job that involves ridiculous business travel, or the production of some product or service that only exists because of the former over-abundance of cheap fossil fuel. Learning to commune with the natural world again, to regain sensitivity to it and thus cherish it sacredness; gardening, keeping chickens, foraging; beginning to appreciate our somatic addiction to power and mobility – the absurdity of pressing our toes toward the floor and claiming the power of hundreds of horses. Perhaps, more simply, appreciating the exquisiteness of a hot shower, losing track of ‘which day of the week’ it is and simply living each moment of today. Learning how to get along with other people; coming together as an occupy movement or community initiative and becoming aware of all the ways in which we project conditioned skill-sets of the past that were developed from a fear-perspective – ways of subtle manipulation and control – onto to the possibility of a more authentic group consciousness.

    As these layers come up into awareness, we can peel them away and hold a space for a new personal paradigm to emerge, recognizing the difficulty in simply being in that place of uncertainty.

  4. Auntiegrav says

    In answer to both Guy and Robin Datta, the heirarchical nature of cities of the present is generally based upon extractive resource use. In the past, some communities were based upon resource supporting roles (land husbandry, animal husbandry), and their resources (reindeer, fruit trees, herds of buffalo, grasslands) had first priority because the humans felt small and humble compared to Nature. Technology advancement has given humans too much ego: we think that we “conquer” nature (which is really ourselves) and that we are thus privileged to extract whatever is available.
    Building communities always has to first start with some long-term service to resources and a feedback mechanism to moderate consumption.
    “The opposite of consumption is not frugality, it is generosity.”- Raj Patel.
    We must prioritize FUTURE humans over ourselves. The chilllllllldrennnnn are not OUR future: they are THEIR future. We don’t have a future. We all die off to allow others to continue the work of the species. If we spend our time living only for the Now, while believing the Invisible Hand or God or Fate will create a future magically, then we are not living intentionally or intelligently: we are just living as yeast. This grand experiment with Intentionality (homo sapiens) was working fine up until the point where we thought we were more important than everything else by virtue of our supposed intelligence. Intelligence and consciousness is just another mutation like opposable thumbs: we can either make a better future with it or consume the future with the corruption of power.

  5. says

    Hi. Thanks for your interesting article. The comments you make certainly resonate emotionally, but economically it just doesn’t hang together.

    As you say ‘Location is vitally important’, and in the UK where I live, the kind of life you describe is just not feasible for everyone. We don’t have the space, and people would be very poor. While an increase in people’s community focus is definitely desirable – essential even – some aspects of modern life appear to me to be essential to simply feed and clothe this many people in this small space. It may not be the case in Arizona, but it is in the UK and many other countries.

    The journey of a thousand miles begins with the earth beneath one’s feet, and can proceed only one step at a time – every step has to be a possible step.

    Best wishes


    • AmyD says

      I suspect, that in the Age of Consequences, just because something is not “feasible” for everyone, does not mean it will not happen. Yes, people will be very poor, and some people will not survive. Just because you want to have some aspects of modern life does not mean that what you want will happen. We’re headed back to reality and leaving the “fantasy” world, the Age of Entitlement.

    • oz says

      “the kind of life you describe is just not feasible for everyone. We don’t have the space, and people would be very poor. While an increase in people’s community focus is definitely desirable – essential even – some aspects of modern life appear to me to be essential to simply feed and clothe this many people in this small space”

      The implication here is that we’ll have a choice to retain ‘some aspects of modern life’ – but I think the thesis being advanced via the term ‘Consequences’ is that our current and past choices have rendered our future choices quite limited.

      That is, I don’t think anyone is suggesting we’ll just give up such modern conveniences – rather, we will be deprived of them per force.

      Most probably, knowing what we know about ecological processes, this will involve a substantial die off of our species until it maps regionally to whatever the local carrying capacities turn out to be.

      – Oz

  6. oz says

    I honestly think the number one thing most of us can do to prepare for the post-peak world has nothing to do with skills, although there is no question that this is damned important. Rather, it is to cultivate a realization (and embed this realization in our way of being in the world) that our mental state does not have to depend on external circumstance. We would do well to get comfortable being uncomfortable. As it stands, if it gets a wee bit warm, we rush to turn on the A/C. It gets a wee bit cold – turn that thermostat up. In other words, our first instinct is to manipulate the external conditions to ‘suit’ out internal desires.

    I suspect we’d be a lot happier in the days to come if we flipped this over, and began to learn how to stabilize our internal dynamics in the face of changing external conditions. For as long as we allow those latter to determine our level of contentment or happiness, we’ll never be content. It’s like that old saw ‘instead of wanting what you don’t have, learn to want what to do have.’

    So the big shift we need to be cultivating is to learn how to be stable and content and non-reactive in the face of radically altered external circumstances. If we can’t learn to do this, then no amount of reskilling is gonna help make post-peak like bearable.

    But if we can, then by all means, proceed to learn carpentry, gardening, scavenging, gunsmithing, and all the rest! As most of us who have worked with out hands for a living know, there is a deep satisfaction to be had, along with a powerful sense of agency, from such work. Far more satisfying, I would argue, than sitting in front if a computer all day long managing abstractions….

    – Oz

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