A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part 1

“This world rips at you” I have heard it said.  But it is not the world.  It is our American culture.  It is the culture of stuff, of things, of valuing these things over our human experience.  It is the appreciation of the photograph over memory.  It is the rise of things over connection.  It is the map becoming the territory.

Animism and polytheism as I understand and live it as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen, requires us to live engaged lives.  Stuff is not just stuff; it is enlivened.  The computer flows with firevaettir and the earthvaettir that make up its body.  It was built by countless hands and shipped by the death of countless plants and animals.  Whether we’re talking about the human and environmental cost of making the laptop I am typing on, or the infrastructure and energy that keeps the power flowing through it and connects it to the Internet, it required a vast amount of resources just to bring this product into my hands and keep it functioning.  Consumerism and capitalism kills not just the bodies of the countless billions who suffer under its yolk, it kills their connection to the land, to their Ancestors, and the Gods of the places they live.  It kills the culture of those it touches by valuing all at the extent that money can be made off of it.  It kills the soul of the consumer by denying relationship to that which is consumed.  It denies, at its root, a living reciprocal relationship with one’s world, and one’s communities.

Note, that I am not saying that markets, trades, industry, etc. are doing this.  We’ve always, in some way, shape, or form, had these things, whether the flint-knapper trading for skins, or the gatherer trading for meat, the farmer trading for cloth, and the weaver trading for grain.  What we have not had is such a strident divorce between ourselves and the things of daily life, for the things which make our lives possible.  Even my parents grew up farming and gardening.  I am the first generation in my family where my hands were not directly involved for the start of my young life in the production of food, industry, or crafts, and I am poorer for it.  I am having to relearn these skills now, and am seeking to learn more, because of how deep the divide is between my grandfather, my father, and my own generation is.

What bothers me most about this, in looking at all of this in the face of peak oil, climate change, and the rising costs of living, food production, and health care, is the sense of loss of inter-generational knowledge and skills.  While knowing how to treat basic illness with herbs, tinctures and the like may not have been common, it was well-known enough that you could get a few basic remedies from the simple growing of a few herbs.  Knowing how to kill, clean, and prepare one’s meat, how to grow and produce one’s food was not simply a greener practice, it was tied up in how we lived our lives. Knowledge and skill in how to make the things we ate, wore, and used was a daily part of life.  Not everyone did every trade or skill, but there were enough people doing varieties of these things that communities could get by interdependently. There are skills and knowledge that I and future generations will need to relearn, not out of a sense of ‘getting back to the land’ or some other sentimental notion, however well-placed, but because of basic survival needs.

It bothers me, deeply, how utterly dependent I am as a diabetic on the convenient, disposable system of food and healthcare.  I use needles that I use once and throw away.  My insulin is only able to be produced because of massive farming operations and/or labs requiring a hell of a lot of energy and resources.  The pills I take come in plastic bottles that, if I or someone else weren’t reusing them or recycling them, would likely go into a landfill.  The sheer amount of stuff that it takes to keep me alive is egregious.  Not because I am not worthy of life, but because of the mountain of stuff that is required in order to keep me alive, on a baseline.

This really gets to the heart of the challenge of peak oil, though: if so much stuff is required to keep me alive, at what point does it become too expensive for me to live?  Take this to mean me personally, or the capitalist/consumer culture at large, and the question of ‘at what point can we actually maintain this?’ becomes a question that is about life or death.  If the apparatus by which I retain my ability to live starts to dry up, what do I do?  My response to peak oil is not just a sentimental notion, then.  It is about answering this question on a practical basis.  If I can no longer get insulin or metformin, can I live?  Well, in the short term the answer is no.  However, as Archdruid John Michael Greer notes in his interviews on Legalize Freedom, overnight collapse of a civilization happens in Hollywood movies, while it takes 100-300 years for it to fully run its course historically.  I and future generations have time to put things in place so that, while I may not have as long a life as a non-diabetic, the disease doesn’t kill me outright or over time through kidney failure or diabetic ketoacidosis.  I can’t count on the cure for diabetes to be found, affordable, or resilient enough to survive the Long Descent.  So, I won’t.

My response, then, isn’t to expect some cure or treatment to come forward and solve the problem of diabetes.  It also isn’t to expect the consumer culture to change; there is too much money wrapped up in keeping people in perpetual debt and consumerism.  The monetary system itself is sustained by exponential growth, and as we should have learned from the 1970’s oil shocks, the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980’s, the dotcom bust of the 1990’s, 2008’s housing/financial crisis, there are hard limits to that.  Booms and busts are a feature of our economic landscape, rather than a flaw in it.  The system goes on because it keeps getting inflated.  The exponential ballooning of the cost of living vs. actual earned income of the average American worker should show us that this way of life is unsustainable.  The increasing cost of heating at a time when natural gas in the midst of a glut should show us that.  The consumer culture, and those who profit from it, have no vested interest in doing things another way.  Those who suffer under such a system do.

Part of the response I am engaging in is to go through the hard lessons of relearning a lot of the skills my parents and grandparents took for granted.  It is to learn how to live with the land, how to live with a lot less, and learn how to live a powered-down life as much as I can now, and do more towards this wherever I can.  As JMG says, “Crash now and avoid the rush.”  That is what I am working towards.  I won’t stop taking my diabetes medication , but I will be looking for ways to reduce their use in a healthy way, with the long-term goal to get off of them entirely.

Another part of my response is partnering with folks who will or already live in a way that supports this, whether it is forming communities, alliances, business relationships, or personal relationships, or tapping into ones I have already established.  It is weaving community ties together in a way that supports my family, my community, and myself while encouraging others to do the same. It doesn’t mean a loss of autonomy, either, and it also doesn’t mean a loss of hierarchy.  It just means that, like a lot of things that need to, things get brought back down to a human level.

This is not without its challenges, and for me, the number one challenge right now is patience.  I’ve had my Gods, Ancestors, and a lot of vaettir pushing me hard to get land for several years, and I have been feeling ‘get started already’ quite a bit this year.  Couple this with my own impatience with how long that’s taking, and there are times where it’s hard for me not to get down.  The other challenge alongside this is resources.  Coming together with others, though, is helping for me to work through things.

Coming up is Part 2, which will explore the challenges we face as a country in addressing peak oil and climate change, and why a return to resilience over convenience is the way to address these directly.

For other explorations of this topic, look here:

The Religious Implications of Peak Oil

Where is the Ground?

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  1. December 17, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    One thing I really worry about with climate change is that it won’t simply be a matter of relearning the way our ancestors lived, but having to learn a new way of living in a damaged environment.

    For example, I do have land, or at least an acre of it with a large garden, and I use a lot of inputs on it that wouldn’t be sustainable in a post-industrial world. The weather has been so erratic, with catastrophic floods and then historic droughts, that I have to water my garden and fruit trees a lot with pumped in water. On my to-do list is to get rainwater tanks, but I still wonder if I’ll be able to save enough water during the rainy season to get us through the summer.

    My point is we’re going to have to deal with stuff our ancestors didn’t have to deal with. The weather used to be predictable and now it’s not. Crops we used to be able to grow here won’t be able to be grown here anymore. Game animals and edible wild plants that used to be abundant here are now all gone.

    I have been working on it. For example, I’ve been experimenting with plant varieties that are from a hotter or drier climate than it’s supposed to be here. But because we’ve damaged the environment, we’re going to be on an even steeper learning curve than we would be if we were just trying to figure out how people lived hundreds of years ago. The Native Americans that used to live in my area were all hunter gatherers because game was so abundant that they didn’t need to farm. I’m pretty sure that won’t be the case for us after the collapse.

    • December 17, 2015 at 6:44 pm

      Part of Permaculture work is to help the land’s natural cycles get back to an even keel, if not actively working to restore them. In some cases, to manipulate them. It’s why Sepp Holzer can grow tropical fruit in the alps. Like a lot of resilient methods, there’s a lot of upfront labor, but once the interlocking sustainable systems are in place, they require a lot less energy to keep going, especially from us. Aquaculture may be something to look into, perhaps in combination with crater gardening, hugelkultur, and the like.

      Since I don’t live in your area and I’m no Permaculture expert myself, talking to a certified Permaculture Designer would be a good idea. The same with connecting with local farmers, farmers market, organic growers and enthusiasts, Transition Town initiatives, and other such folk.

      We absolutely will have to deal with chaotic environmental impacts, but our Ancestors did too, with many unable to directly address solutions to things like desertification and resource depletion. We’re still in a place to do this on the local and regional level. We can do it.

      • December 17, 2015 at 7:10 pm

        Those are all good points. I’m getting a lot of inspiration from the writings of Gary Paul Nabhan, who founded http://nativeseeds.org/ to preserve heirloom plant varieties from the desert southwest. I’ve found that if a plant can grow in Tuscon, Arizona, it thinks that South Texas is a paradise.

        Part of the learning curve is going to be figuring out what we can grow where now that the climate has changed, and things like when to plant and harvest, which are going to have to be altered. I haven’t had a freeze at my house yet this year and it’s mid-December. It’s a month late. On the other hand, I planted several citrus trees in the ground when we first moved in a couple of years ago, and some people thought I was pushing my luck and a freeze would kill them. So far they’re doing great as long as I keep them watered in summer.

      • December 18, 2015 at 12:48 am

        Oh, very cool. Thanks! I’ve bookmarked it so I can look at it in greater detail later.

        You raise a good point in regards to climate change already occurring. By now I’ve usually had at least a snow or two in the area, but it is almost Yule, and we haven’t had a single snowfall. I hope this is a one or two off-years thing rather than a permanent change, as we’ve had low lake levels due to lack of heavy snowfall before, and went through a two-year drought when it got really bad. The last few years, though, January and February tried to make up for it in spades.

        Something to ponder though, especially since Michigan is a lot of swamp and temperate forest, and was especially so prior to large colonialist settlement.

  1. December 17, 2015 at 7:31 am
  2. December 20, 2015 at 8:06 am
  3. December 20, 2015 at 2:26 pm
  4. December 28, 2015 at 5:29 pm
  5. March 24, 2016 at 3:43 am
  6. March 24, 2016 at 3:51 am

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