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

February 4, 2016 8 comments

My post here is written in response to critiques I am reading of folks in the peak oil community, and are several responses in one to common points I have seen brought up on Facebook and Tumblr today in relation to this post.

One way or another the capitalist/industrial model is, by how it is deployed in the landscape and how capitalism is interwoven with mass industrialism, doomed to failure. Both are running up against hard limits on a finite planet. The simple fact is sooner or later peak oil will hit. Climate change is happening right now.  There is nothing on this planet that can replace what oil does for us. Not coal, not natural gas, not any of the systems of electricity production such as solar or wind, and certainly not nuclear. There is no infrastructure in place on a national scale ready to bear the weight of all the needs United States citizens have now, let alone need to keep that infrastructure operating far into the future. Neither system of economy or production has the ability to address the hard limits being placed on them, whether one looks at the limits to growth in an infinite-money paradigm as capitalism has right now, or the ‘technology can solve all our ills’ on the other.

I absolutely agree this needn’t be an all-or-nothing deal, but technologism, much like critiques of scientism, is part of the central critique of folks like JMG and myself. If capitalism fails, with the way it is interwoven into the technology industries, it will take many, if not most of the technology industries with it. Technologies by themselves cannot allow us to live on if we continue to use the technologies we have in the ways we are right now, especially as dependent as it is on the resources that are becoming increasingly scarce in order for them to be viable in the first place.

The idea of ‘seize the means of production’ sounds like so much pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, not because I think capitalism is invincible or that we could not actually seize them, but because I cannot see how seizing the means of production actually will help anything if all the feedstocks for, say, my diabetes medication, fall right along with the production of the meds themselves.  How many means of production can we realistically seize and kept running? I don’t see how ‘seizing the means of production’ will actually help anything, either as a narrative, nor do I see a practical application of this idea. Unless folks who want to seize the means of production can also seize provide upkeep for the means by which production is maintained and kept running in the first place, and can keep the people fed who do the maintaining and producing, and so on, there’s little point in my mind of engaging with the idea.

If we look at the ‘seizing the means of production’ from socialist countries or Marxist literature, this may be a good model to start with, but it runs into the same problems sooner or later. These are finite resources and we have no plans for what to do when they run low enough where the cost to produce goods and services exceeds the ability of the resource to provide energy and/or end product(s). Once a given thing, whether oil, natural gas, neodymium, etc., hits peak and begins decline nothing we do to extract, refine, or design more effectively will stop the decline of the availability of the resource. The hard limits problem must be dealt with, or anything proposed ignores the outcome of diminishing resources and at the end of the day is not realistic.

Technology is not a monolith. A stone arrow is a piece and product of technology as much as a smart phone is. Both requires certain resources, skills, and time to fashion. There are technologies which require significant investment of resources in order to make viable. If the neodymium mines which allow our hard drives to be built start running out of neodymium, 90% of which are located in China, how would we seize the means of production in order to keep our computers’ hard drives, and all the things that rely on good, working computer systems to function? This is my issue with these kinds of narratives. The baseline resources required to pull this idea off actually belong to someone else, and are only viable so long as production and refinement of these resources is able to maintained at a certain level.

As I said in Part One of this series:

“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. ”

If anyone here read any of JMG’s books or watched his talks on this subject, I would think it would very quickly put to bed the notion that he thinks this is some kind of utopia. It won’t be. There will be suffering, whether it is because people refuse to come together and put what technology they can put theirs hand to into use, or because they refuse to understand and/or act until the hard limits of reality come knocking, or because communities do not do the hard work to prepare for peak oil and climate change now.

The Long Descent is not some fantasy I want to have happen. I’ve looked at what evidence is out there, what I understand lies before us, and accept that I may well die because the means of producing the metformin, insulin, and other medications that keep me alive will cease to be viable economically or technologically because of resource depletion.

I am not telling people to reject technology, nor do I believe others who I identify with the peak oil and permaculture crowd such as JMG are. I am saying we need to understand the limits to growth, especially within the paradigms technology operates, and what these things allow to occur without significant personal investment for other means of making and operating the technology we rely on. I do not understand JMG to be saying that we should simply accept out of hand the suffering that is coming.

What I do understand is that peak oil and climate change are real, occurring right now, and there are things we can still do to prepare for it, and things that are beyond our reach.

As I have written about this previously, I don’t think top-down approaches will allow us to survive climate change or peak oil. I do not put much stock in theories and ideas which do not have a practical application. Much of my issue with much of the Marxist, anarchist, and other ideas currently out in the public sphere right now, is that there is no one saying “This is how to practically apply these ideas”. I can look at JMG and those of his ilk and see the solutions in action. I can do them myself. More to the point, I am enacting the changes in my life and learning the skills that will allow my family and I have a good chance at surviving peak oil and climate change. It is entirely possible I haven’t run across places, books, and other resources where anarchist and Marxist ideas on how to address climate change and peak oil are being applied. There are overlaps between folks in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist, and other communities in the peak oil and permaculture communities, but I have yet to see this as centrally addressed in the anarchist, Marxist, anti-capitalist communities, as in the peak oil and permaculture communities.

One of the things that gets hurled around in some of the posts I have been reading is how privileged it is for folks to be talking about looking for alternatives to factory-produced medicines and the like, which require great amounts of resources. I’ve actually taken time to respond to the notion of my diabetes killing me because of the challenges of climate change and peak oil.  I have also noted on this blog and elsewhere, that I make an hourly rate just above minimum wage, and I qualify for Medicaid.  To me, looking for and engaging with alternatives to mass-produced medicines is as much part of the overall idea of surviving and thriving in a powered-down future as growing my own food is.

I’ll be honest: I’m getting tired, damned tired, of privilege being used as a club and thought-stopper when there are folks, like myself, with these diseases and issues who are working through the understanding of “Yes, I may well die from lack of access to medicines I need”.  There are folks like myself who, knowing this, recognize that climate change and peak oil need to be addressed, and that a powerful response to them is to build community ties, personal and communal skills while developing human-scale technology on the ground level to deal with these challenges as much as we can.

I recognize that I may not survive if, say trade or the medical industries that produce my medicines are hard-hit by peak oil or climate change.  That’s not the fault of green activists, permaculturists, transition town communities, or the like.  As I have said before, there’s not a lot any of us can really do about it.  Like it or not, the means of getting these medications will become harder and harder as peak oil and climate change continue.  This is not a call to ‘revert’ or go to a primitivist lifestyle, though that may be the answer for some, but to take what technologies we have right now, and do all we can to prepare for a future where these things are hard to access, if not cut off from us. This is not a zero-sum game, and it does us and our descendants no good if we bury our heads in the sand and ignore reality.

Capitalism, technology, and science are not monolithic, and are not untouchable.  We live in a world where the ability to pour massive amounts of money and resources into projects that do not further the survival of our species is being left behind.  We need to look at whether or not certain ways of using our resources are actually worth our time. This is not anti-science nor is it anti-technology, though in many ways it may be anti-capitalist. What it is, at the end of the day, is the use of discernment.

The process of coming to grips with peak oil and climate change, and how we live in this world becomes even more important to the animist and polytheist. Our world, and all of the things within it, carry the potentiality, if not the actuality, of being Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits.  The working with and/or caring for the Beings around us, treating them all as Beings, including what we usually think of as ‘resources’, is a dynamic shift in thought. Look at oil as the distilled essence of the lich of the Dead which comprise it, and your relationship to this object which permeates our lives takes on new meaning. Look at Fire Itself as the Eldest Ancestor, and your relationship with all things Fire, whether the fire that burns the coal, natural gas, etc. that heats one’s home or powers one’s electronics, or that enables us to travel by bus, takes on a new dynamic.

We never stopped relying on all these Beings. What we have done is find new ways for them to inhabit our lives, and use more of the bodies of the Dead and the Earth than we ever have before.  What Westerners especially have done is taken and demanded more from the landvaettir than They have hope of giving while maintaining Their own homes.

Technologies, for all the ills we have wrought with many of them, are not our enemy. Using our knowledge of and expertise in technologies is part of how we can address climate change and peak oil.

I think that this person’s concerns need to be addressed directly, as I have seen variations of this come up.  I do want them to know I’m not picking on them personally.

This kind of anarchic tribalism mentality growing in, let’s be real, mostly English-language-dominant radical & occult circles, is seriously troubling to me. Part of the problem is, as you said, lack of consideration for all the horrific suffering that medical technologies and research either keep just behind the door or completely shut out. Anti-establishment thinkers in North America, the UK, and the European-dominated Antipodes have lived with the unacknowledged benefits of vaccinations, advanced sanitation, and disability aids for so long that I honestly think we don’t comprehend anymore that our life spans of 80+ years borne out in relative ease are because. Of. Science. Not natural immunity. Influenza anyone??? Yes let’s develop this the “““natural”““ way by letting viral infections wipe out 1/3 of our national populations every 30 years or so, GREAT PLAN.

Medical technology and therapies have given rise to immense advances in healthcare, no doubt.  I don’t think, though, that there is a lack of consideration for suffering.  We simply don’t have answers.  If oil becomes cost-prohibitive, as it will in a peak oil future and Long Descent, then very basic questions come up in regards to developing and maintaining medical infrastructure. How will we transport medicine?  What will the containers the medicine comes in be?  What kinds of medicines will be able to survive in such a future?  There are a myriad of questions, and very few good answers come to mind.  Sure, we can hang to what infrastructure we have for awhile, and maybe it could last a generation or two.  If we’re careful, the infrastructure we have, or better yet, develop, could last even longer, but that would require we start doing that now.

Here’s the truth though: the only reason a vast majority of folks are alive is because of cheap, abundant fossil fuels, and a climate that allows regular food/medicine production, trade, and storage.  It isn’t a pleasant truth, but it is the truth.  Without the infrastructure, from roads to bridges, from trade networks to universities that do the research for a lot of the medical products in the first place, the only thing that keeps a lot of folks alive are the same fossil fuels that are polluting the environment and causing CO2 levels to rise.

Not everyone will get out of this alive.  Actually, a good number of us will die, or our descendants will because of the effects of peak oil and/or climate change.  No human gets out of life alive, but that doesn’t mean we need to treat The Long Descent as a Vale of Tears either, because it needn’t be that way.

By the way, when The Collapse happens, say goodbye to literally everyone in your little clan with a hereditary predisposition and / or environmental exposure to cancers that weren’t classed as surefire killers before.

This is so simplistic as to be ridiculous.  Not everyone with genetic predispositions develops a given disease or disorder.  Peak oil and climate change by themselves aren’t going to increase the cancer rates.

Corporate greed and pollution did its damage to your locale and your body’s cells long before you became politicized over it. You can’t undo that no matter how many animals / plants you “naturally” harvest & prepare yourself.

This is true of chemicals like lead, but this is not true of all cancers or diseases.  This is why most of the literature I have seen on the subject deals in probabilities rather than certainties. There are ways foods can reduce the impact of lead, noted by Michigan Radio here, and the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services here.  There are people seeking to reduce the impact of lead in communities hit by the Flint lead poisoning by getting good, fresh foods into the hands of Flint kids.  It isn’t a total fix, but it will at least help mitigate the damage.  This person is right, in that sometimes the impacts are out of our control, but once we understand these factors that are involved, that means that what remains is within our hands to work with.

That’s another blind spot, the idea that literally the day after you start back-to-nature living, you are magically (pun very much intended) cut off & protected from the ongoing damage caused by ill-used & unregulated technologies.

This actually isn’t a blind spot that I see in these circles except in all but the most naive. For example, when I talked about the plans I and my fellows had, the Strawbale Studio folks actively warned against the idea that living as they do would magically fix all the problems.  The idea that back-to-nature and living off the land can occur in our cities and towns is an idea that has taken root in permaculture, urban gardening, and natural building communities.  The tiny house movement has, in part, exploded because of the need for small, developed parts of land within cities.

If people abandon towns & cities en masse for the idyllic countryside, unmaintained lead pipes will poison waters & wreck ecosystems downstream for decades, if not centuries. The Pacific Garbage Patch will still be there, and oceanic fish will still build up particulate plastic in their bodies long after our grandchildren grow old. If we go off science & technology cold turkey, we will only be less equipped to deal with the fallout from the Industrial Age frenzy & late-capitalist lawless exploitation.

Because we are human we will never ‘go off of science and technology cold turkey’.  What is happening and will continue to happen as the Long Descent goes on, is that the technologies that require great amounts of energy to operate that are required for our complex societies to keep chugging along will get harder to come by, and thus, more expensive.  The sciences that requires great inputs of energy and material may keep on getting funding, but we thought that by now we’d be on Mars.  The NASA manned space program is pretty-much dead.  Maybe Space X, Boeing, and others will pick up the slack, but again, the EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) of these missions will come into question as time goes on.

There will be a point at which the cost-benefit analysis will tell us there’s only so much we can afford to put towards getting this resource, like oil, or that material, like copper, and still break even, let alone make surplus of the resource or material, or a profit off the sale of them.  There’s a reason folks are relearning and reskilling for a powered-down economy, and it is not because we don’t like our laptops, phones, and other modern conveniences.  It is because these things require energy and materials that are getting increasingly rare to build and maintain.

The lead pipes are already breaking down.  The ecosystems are being poisoned right now. We can only do so much to stop this, especially with the major infrastructure systems unable or refusing to address these issues head-on.  Lack of regulations are not the only problem.  Collusion and cooperation between private businesses and government agencies is as well.  The MI Department of Environmental Quality stepped aside when Graymont sought 10,000 acres in the Upper Peninsula for development of a limestone mine.  The MI DEQ failed, or intentionally did not stop the poisoning of Flint citizens.  Citizens are left with few means by which to stop such things when our representatives and state workers step aside, or intentionally stop doing their job for us, the people.  It actually makes sense, for those who can afford to, to get the hell away from all of this infrastructure which is falling apart inside folks’ communities and homes.

I think part of the reason this “run away into the woods” reaction is so strong in the previously mentioned demographics is that we’re so used to having that choice. And still having some power to curtail the consequence of that choice. Don’t like your 9-to-5 city life, dominated by glowing screens and pointless work for the benefit of companies you resent? Form an “intentional community” and keep out the technophiles & corporate shills. And coincidentally the lower class neighbors who can’t afford to build an eco-friendly straw-bale home 2 hours’ drive from town on 3-day weekends they don’t have.

This is the other part of a lot of permaculture, transition town, and similar efforts though: staying where you live, stick it out, and make something of your home.  For some, going to the country is their answer.  For some folks, and I include myself here, I won’t make it in a city.  I’ve never lived in one for longer than a few years in my life, I don’t much care to visit them, and I don’t feel right in them.  Some folks thrive in cities, and that’s why they live there.  I don’t think the back-to-land movement, permaculture, transition town, gardening, and other folks have an all-or-nothing mindset as a whole.  Some folks do, like myself, because we’re just not suited to city living.  Some folks are all about city living and couldn’t see themselves living in the country.  Neither of these approaches are bad in and of themselves.

I lived in Flint for a few years, and I really, really didn’t like it.  Flint itself was not a bad place to live.  I just did not get city living and felt really out of place.

The downside to city living is that unless the infrastructure is in place, food access, recycling and reuse, and energy production are big issues.  Add to this aging infrastructure that struggles just to have basic maintenance because of budget cuts, and the pressure gets even harder.  Cities and towns can compound the issues because of how close everything is, but then, transportation between people can be a lot easier because its a matter of walking, biking, or taking a bus, whereas living in the country or even suburbs in America requires a car and all the attendant costs.

There are downsides to country living, but I find myself feeling better out here, and this is where I would prefer to live.  I don’t deal well with the compact spaces, the alleys, all of the noise of a city.  The city spirits are nice enough to me when I visit, but after getting lost in Ann Arbor a few times and making plenty of offerings to Her just to find my damned car, it’s safe to say this isn’t the place for me.

But another part of it is, I think, the sheer density of despair that we’ve grown up with. At least, this is my experience, and my internal struggle regarding the current state of science & tech as commodities under global capitalism: this system has deeply entrenched itself in my country. You only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine, materials tech, and automated services if you can pay for them. Human life is a utility, and will be cut off without a second thought if you get too behind on your bills. And that’s if you were born into one of the categories of people the ruling party WANTS to survive. The rest are consigned to ghettos and the prison-industrial system.

I understand how you only get the benefits of scientific advances in medicine very well, especially when I didn’t have insurance and had to buy, or ask my folks to buy, for my insulin out of pocket.  Holy fucking shit.  I need this medicine to live and it costs $260-$470 per vial, and that vial might last a month.  Survival being a function of what you can afford is baked into how we survive.  It isn’t a specific evil of capitalism, though how capitalism sharpens that knife on the bones of the poor is especially egregious and vile.

My culture has already imagined dozens of future-Earth settings for entertainment purposes where the capability to live comfortably and to improve one’s basic living is actually a universal right, in deed & not just in words. We have the means to achieve that before I breathe my last breath on this Earth. But I won’t see that world, or be able to give it to my successors, because an oligarchy of national figureheads and business leaders have decided they want to win this ridiculous numbers game that is capitalism, which has tied itself to all human activities in order to effect a stranglehold on humanizing endeavors.

This assumes a top-down structure that would be able to stay intact for future generations, though, and I’m not sure that is going to be the case, or could be even if everyone did get on board with universal healthcare.  What makes socialism work, just as much as capitalism and communism, and any other modern mass societal organizations that I am missing here, is the cheap abundant fuel to make all of the programs, companies, and so on able to work in the first place.  The assumption that we would have the means to provide such a future is in deep doubt where I am standing.  This is also why, while I am a huge fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, I doubt we will have such a future.

There’s a deep despair in my own mind and likely the minds of a lot of comrades who see tech companies colluding with fascist governing bodies to spy on political dissidents & community leaders, or to remotely slaughter brown & black civilians of other nations because they’re on the wrong side of a war over toxic fuel for outmoded machinery. It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them. Our media is bent on national distraction & playing all sides against each other, another abuse of communications science that’s become background knowledge taken as given by most Americans I know under the age of 50.

I want to touch on this part in particular: “It’s so hard to believe that we can wrest science out of the hands of entrepreneurs and energy barons who have become indirect warlords via the reach that sophisticated data & communications tech gives them.”

We cannot beat them at their own game.  This is why I, and those in my family, alliances, clan, and tribe, are looking at going off-the-grid as soon as I can as much as I can.  They have less control over me the less control I give them.  This is why we need to reweave local industries with locally produced goods.  If we’re not beholden to giant corporations for the wool for our looms, then the power to produce them lies in our hands.  If we’re not beholden to conglomerates of companies for the foods we need to live, the power lies in our hands.  The more we empower our own the less power we give to them. Its full effects may not be seen within our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for.  A given community member may not see the full impact of a community garden on their community before they die, but that does not mean these roots are not worth planting.

We’re constantly reinforced in the belief that with technology comes commodification – if you can fly or drive an oil drill or fracking rig there, you can exploit anyplace to ruination for profit. We don’t get widespread coverage on, to give a recent example from the Paris climate talks, other countries in the Americas approaching 50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources. The rest of the world outside of the villains given top billing in the U.N. are actually taking their stewardship responsibilities seriously, are both curtailing and evolving their technological sectors to mitigate harms perpetrated mainly by the Big 8. One can’t help but foster the impression that if we could just… just kinda sorta blast ourselves back into the Stone Age, the absence of the U.S.’s corporate-funded political maneuvering alone would leave so much more room for positive change.

I think that fostering the impression that ‘if we could blast ourselves back to the Stone Age then the US’s corporate-funded maneuvering would leave room for positive change’ is another form of delusion.  Countries like Japan, Brazil, and China, a few among many, snow the reality of things as we do.  China’s markets are coming unraveled, and yet the nationalist spin machine can’t twist the message hard enough that progress and good things are yet to come, even as the industrial economy takes a huge beating.  Brazil’s energy production is, in no small part, made possible because of massive damming operations which destroy indigenous peoples’ ways of life, and threaten the Amazon Rainforest Itself.

The problem with the sentence here, “50% or more of their energy needs met with sustainable sources”, is that it belies what is actually going on.  It isn’t 50% or more of their energy needs being met, it is 50% or more of their electricity needs being met.  The cars still require 7 gallons of oil per tire, the roads still require diesel to power the equipment and make the materials that makes and maintains roads, lighting, signage, and so on.  Actual costs of maintaining many ‘clean energy’ grids are actually quite environmentally destructive, and they’re stopgaps at best. When our usual methods of getting cheap abundant fossil fuels are moot, what then?  We’re largely no longer dependent on what was called conventional reserves, like the big oil fields that were in Pennsylvania and Texas and sustained us through our own production peak in the 1970s.  The Bakken shale oil fields started being tapped at high rates because they were positive in cost-benefit analysis when oil prices were high.  At $25 or so a barrel of crude oil, that evaporates.  There are only a handful of shale oil, tight oil, and other similar plays that even make sense to exploit, and the EROEI is relatively small compared to historical levels.  Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, and related fields of technology are not new.  They just were less expensive than other options for a little while.  The only way a lot of companies are making any money in the fracking business is leasing, and it’s a matter of time before this glut dies a horrible death in a bubble/bust not unlike the housing market.

We’re going to go to a time where less cheap, abundant energy and less convenient material goods are the norm. The questions that arise from this understanding, then, are:  When we will get there?  How will we get there?  Will it be voluntary?  What actions can I and my community take now to prepare?

Technology makes dissent & better world-building possible – Twitter and Tor relays are among the best tools of anti-establishment & radical organizers. The Internet is the only reason many of us know what goes on in other countries, what progress others are making with science & conscientiously deployed technologies, while we wax faux-nostalgic about “simpler” lives.

I cannot wax nostalgic about a time I’ve never known.  If anything, folks like me get accused of being romantics, Luddites, and similar things.  As I said before, technology is not a monolith, and I think we need to be more clear about what kinds of technology we are talking about.  Food-oriented technology such as those used in GMOs’ processes are different from other food technology and distinct from mechanical technology like combines, and permaculture techniques that use earth movers are using different technologies.  Natural builders using axes, chisels, snap lines, and rules for roundwood timber framing are using different technologies as well.

With the resignation of four top executives, Twitter may well be going away, and that needs to be watched since so much activism is done on its platform.  What kind of technologies will be called on to replace it, and if it will have the ability to do the work for activism Twitter did, will be a hard question needing answering.  Part of Twitter’s success has been that it is accessible by non-activists, who can spread the word through the media conglomerates attached to it.

Winamp Internet TV streaming is how I found out about peak oil in the first place, and I do a lot of research online. Computer technology is how I do a lot of communication, and I include my phone in that technology camp since my phone operates more like a computer with phone functionality than a straightforward phone.  I would mourn the loss of such technology, but I also understand that living with it less is becoming more and more a survival skill as cell phone companies cut back on maintenance, and State and local money is less inclined towards basic infrastructure.  It’s part of why I am working on retraining my handwriting skills, which, especially compared to my typing skills, are atrocious.

What enables utopian-monolithic understandings of ‘Technology’, especially ‘green future’, medical, computer and communications-based ones, are the myth of progress.  It’s a very nice image, but it is a poor map of a very beleaguered territory.

And as much as the nihilist in me would love to see the total collapse of bloated Western wealth machines & all their tech & infrastructure, I cannot in good conscience wish for, work magic towards, or participate in radical subcultures that turn away from the misery and death such a collapse would unleash primarily on people who were only captive to this system, not its architects.

I think that if a given person’s morality calls for this that is fine, but I hope that they, and the others who contribute to the ongoing conversation, understand that it no longer matters what our wishes are in this regard.  Sooner or later the fuel will cost more than we can put towards pumping it out of the ground.  Saudi Arabia is looking to sell off parts of its nationalized oil company, and it is the country with the largest oil reserves in the world.  Saudi Arabia has been doing more and more offshore drilling.  That is incredibly expensive, environmentally dangerous, and should push people to take note.

Sooner or later the resources for production will cost more than we can put toward extracting it out of the ground.  Copper mines are a great example of this and Chris Martenson explores this idea pretty well in this video.  This is keenly seen in places like the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, which is 2.5 miles across and 0.75 deep.  It’s a strip mine, the largest copper mine in the United States, and the deepest in the world, producing 0.2% ore concentration.  This means that, per 500 pounds of ore, you only get a single pound of copper.  This is simply unsustainable.  No, really, go look at the environmental damage in the Wikipedia article that the damn thing does to its surroundings.  Think on what Martenson says in the video above: look at how much energy and how many resources we are pouring into getting such little amounts of copper in return.  How long can we continue to justify these expenses?

It no longer matters if you are working towards dismantling the system.  The system is falling apart.  What is of utmost importance, in my view, is working towards building up communities that will last during and beyond the Long Descent.  Rather than staying tied to such a system, I am trying to mitigate the damage it will do to my tribe, my clan, my family, and my allies.  I cannot hope to save everyone, and I can only do what is within my quite limited capability to do.  Whatever I can do, though, is worth it.

This Greek proverb is part of the vision I hold for the future:

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

We cannot do everything, but there is no reason for us not to do all that we can.

A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part 5

December 31, 2015 4 comments

Having read, watched, and listened to coverage of COP21, I have to say I am utterly disappointed.  Not only were no binding agreements made, what was agreed upon will not effectively address the issues facing the world.  Per the COP21 website:

In 2015 COP21, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.

It failed.  There are aims, but nothing binding.  There is plenty of signed paper, but no promises.  There are plenty of goals, but no ambition to see them through.  Further, it gutted a lot of the binding agreements by placing things like this in the preamble.

KANDI MOSSETT: Right. So, there’s an article. When there’s language in the article, that’s legally binding language. And what they’ve actually done is taking out reference to indigenous peoples’ rights from the article and putting it only into the preamble, which is not legally binding. The same for human rights, the same for food sovereignty. There’s just different things that have happened in the text that—intergenerational equity is also in the preamble, so a lot of the youth are very upset as to what’s happening. And I think it’s kind of a shame that we’ve—actually, at the 21st COP, more than a shame, it’s a crime that we’ve taken a step backwards by taking out the rights of indigenous peoples.

 Not only are there no easy answers, there is no plan for addressing climate change on a global level.  So too, there is no global plan for addressing peak oil.  There are only a few places where peak oil and climate change are being actively addressed on a regional scale.  The same with a State or provincial scale.  The most action I have seen and continue to see addressing peak oil, and climate change is within local communities, whether these are tribes, clans, counties, cities, towns, intentional communities, or individual families.

It is incredibly easy to look at this failure of leadership and the impending impacts of peak oil and climate change, to read JMG’s latest piece summarizing what is facing us, and simply fall into despair. I am going to encourage anyone reading this not to do that.

Go to the Gods.  Go to the Ancestors.  Go to the vaettir.  Ask Them for help to do something to address this.  Go do magic.  Work magic to address this.  Go learn and study.  Put your hands to whatever you are able to do.  Organize where you can.  Do what is within your power to do. Do something with those emotions.  Do not let them sit idle.  Use them as fuel.

Grow what you can where you can.  Preserve knowledge wherever you can.  Distribute knowledge where you can.  Learn a skill or learn a trade if you can.  Every single bit helps.

The idea that we will not be able to get out of the Long Descent without casualties has come up a couple of times in the comments in this series of posts.  In every documentary on Youtube I have watched, the idea population decline will, at some point, come up.  It seems expected that we will somehow be able to keep on preserving our ways of life that allow us in America to use 25% of the world’s resources when we are 5% of the overall population of the Earth.  It seems expected that we can just ‘run things on renewables’ when it comes to Q&As at the end of a good many of these lectures, some desperate variation on the bargaining aspect of the 5 Stages of Grief.  When we haven’t invested shit into our infrastructure, into renewables, or into any other way of life but the ones folks are living right now.

People are going to die because of climate change and peak oil, and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it.  Whether because of the hubris and neglect of corporations, the incredibly tight controls or severe lack in industry standards with the government, laziness or panic or inaction on the part of the average citizens, our opportunity to stem the tide of these things passed us by well before Morning in America was the rallying cry of the Reagan administration.  Carter tried to be straightforward and honest with the American people on these matters, and he was a one-term president, mocked and roundly criticized for his stances.  No one has tried this and won since.  We are now faced with a world which will see us in the Long Descent as John Michael Greer calls it, the Bumpy Plateau as Richard Heinberg calls it, or the Collapse, as Chris Martenson and Jared Diamond call it.  The end of cheap, abundant fossil fuel is coming, climate change is occurring, and yet we still can affect change on the local level.

I ran across this idea from Michael Ruppert across several of his lectures:

Let us say that there were people on the Titanic who knew that an iceberg was going to hit it, and the Titanic would sink.  These people know there are not enough lifeboats, but that there is time enough to make some in preparation for the disaster that is coming.  There are three kinds of reactions to these people.  The first are those who say “Oh you’re just a doom-sayer.  I’m going to go back to the bar for a drink.”  The second are those who panic, wide-eyed and run around crying out “What do I do?  What do I do?” but do not address the problem.  Then there are third, who say “Let’s get to work on building some lifeboats” and get started working on it.  As with Ruppert, I suggest we work with other lifeboat builders and not waste our time with the first two groups of people.

This means ceasing to fight with those that think global warming is a fraud.  This means not arguing with those who adamantly do not accept the reality of peak oil.  This means ceasing to waste time on folks who want to talk, but not do.

This means getting proactive wherever you can in your life and community to address peak oil and climate change.  This means doing whatever research, reskilling, growing, learning, accumulating of resources, and making community ties now wherever you are able as you are able.  This means reorienting your life in whatever ways that you can so the Long Descent is easier to deal with.

This means that there are people out there for whom it is not worth your time to try to save.  Not that they are intrinsically better or worse than you.  It means that these people will be an impediment to you doing things to actively work in ways that will better you, your family, and/or your community.  On a practical level, the people not willing to build lifeboats with you are simply not worth your time to try to save.  You can love your family, your friends, your neighbors, and they all can be impediments or allies in the way of where you need to go, and what you need to do, to ensure you, yours, and future generations are able to survive.  These are not easy things to think about, and I appreciate that, but if you have put off thinking about them, now is the time.

What I am not saying is “you should not worry about the non-lifeboat builders” or “you should be totally okay with this”.  I have folks in my family who want to pretend that everything will be fine, or technology will find a way.  You know what?  I don’t stop loving them.  I don’t stop wanting them to end their addiction to oil, to join a community effort, even if it isn’t mine, to address peak oil and climate change.  I don’t stop wanting them to change their mind, but I also realize that, after a certain point, all I am doing is wasting our collective time by trying to get them on board.

Hell, in talking with my grandparents on my mother’s side, both realize just how hard of a time ahead we have.  All I can do at this point is ask as many questions as I can of them for how they got through the hard times in their lives.  To ask them how their parents got through the Depression and how they got through the Oil Shocks.  I pray that I get as many old tools and machines that my grandpa collected from garage, estate, and auction sales, as I can.  It’s my hope to put these still-functioning tools to work again.

I cannot offer hope or comfort, outside of “We have time to prepare” and “Better ways of living with the world are possible, and within our ability to do.”  With the coming Long Descent coming, I find comfort in the words of Arundhati Roy:
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

The work of addressing peak oil and climate change is working to hear these messages, and put them in to action.  We have work to do, and each will need to decide in what ways their energy and time are best used.  I pray that your efforts succeed.  I pray they pave the way for others to succeed, for all of us to survive, and thrive.

A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part 4

December 21, 2015 9 comments

I had not planned a fourth part to this series, however, I was hit by something as I was sitting and experiencing this beautiful rendition of The Sound of Silence.  I went back to thinking about the series of posts that I have been writing lately on consumerism and peak oil.  I was thinking in how my father and I were sitting in the basement while he was smoking after he teared up while listening to it on Youtube.  He explained to me that he had had a lot of friends buried to that song, and it occurred to me to ask him a few things, among them, what songs he wanted to have at his funeral, and if it would be okay if I kept his skull.  This song and yes were among his answers.

We have such an odd relationship with death and endings in this country.  While there is a cyclical nature to my religion, there is a linear one in my father’s, and the predominant mythological/cultural narratives American society tells itself are, likewise, linear, for instance, the myth of progress.  It is very hard for folks to envision things past a certain point.  It’s not the main reason I connect The Sound of Silence to my work with peak oil, though.  No, what I connect with is one the overarching messages I get from the song.  That our things overtake our sense of self, connection, community, even the place of our Gods.  The lines that stick with me the hardest are these:

And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared, and no one dared
To stir the sound of silence

and this one:

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they’d made
And the sign flashed its warning in the words that it was forming
And the sign said the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence

This song sticks in my craw, especially lately, especially because of the dearth of silence I see in the needed conversations on peak oil and climate change.  That we have become overtaken by our things, that our need to have things have supplanted our need for connection.  That the very means by which we enjoy this very song, or as you, the readers read the words, or I as I type them, is all part of the collective death knell of modern human civilization.  This is so discomforting, that, like conversations on death, it is a taboo, a thing we dare not speak or give word to, lest we sound crazy or we dare to step out of line and suggest that another world is not only possible, but absolutely fucking necessary.  It is taboo, echoing in the well of silence.

The other reason this post kind of spoke up and said “Hey, write me,” is because of a comment from PSVL on Part 3.  While I did address e in the comments, between being prompted by The Sounds of Silence and the comment itself, I felt that e was right.  We do need to talk more about folks who aren’t able-bodied facing a future in which cheap, abundant fossil fuels are no longer available, and as a result, neither will our life-dependent medications.  Some of this will be retread of the comments, and some will be me responding having stewed on things a bit.

I wanted to respond to eir’s first and last points to start with:

While I think this is all good, I’m still utterly unimpressed with–and am downright horrified by–the attitudes of JMG, and certain other anti-capitalists we know of in refusing to address the situation of folks like yourself and myself who rely upon medications produced by corporate capitalism for our very lives, that (at least in my case) I won’t ever be able to wean myself away from, short of a miracle, and those are thin on the ground these days. By JMG, when I brought this up, I was told “Well, everyone has to die sometime”; and by the other, I got outrage that I’d ask that question, was told I’d be taken care of, and then was given no details or anything on how that would actually take place in his self-congratulation over how caring and compassionate he was toward poor non-able-bodied sods like me (in ideal, anyway).

and

The amount of privilege that those who practically glorify this matter and their “responsible” lifestyle in response to it enjoy by being able-bodied (at least for the moment) in these discussions is quite frankly disgusting.

I wish someone would actually address that.

No one from the Peak Oil movement that I know of or consistently refer to takes any kind of pleasure or glory from this being the future.  We can, however, enjoy the processes we go through to prepare for a power-down future, and make the Long Descent as pleasant as we are able in the meantime.  We can connect with community, create art, learn skills, write books, teach, and pass on knowledge.  To my mind, it would be better to glorify this responsible lifestyle than to pretend that the one that is touted by American society as ideal is at all sustainable or has a future.

I more or less stand by my original answer to em in this regard.  There is no answer for us coming from established sources.  Since we cannot control funding, research, dialogue, or the larger-scope top-down issues of addressing peak oil and climate change, or the associated complications of peak oil, climate change, and the therapies, medication, and other things that keep us alive, there are only local-level answers I could hope to give. Unless we do work on trying to find replacements for our medications now, or if we can attain some kind of homestasis in a sustainable manner that allows us to live in a powered-down future, a good number of us are outright screwed.  The truth of the matter is, that I don’t think anyone in the Peak Oil communities, or the anarchists, the permaculturalists, the government, researchers, or anyone else for that matter, has an answer for people who are this dependent on medication, therapies, and so on that are only available to us because of the energy output of fossil fuels, and all the industries it is used to run and make products for.  What methods there may be to address our needs in the face of peak oil and climate change, such as alternative therapies, herbal medicines, and tradition-specific medicinal approaches, may well have to be approached from a trial-and-error perspective rather than a rigorous scientific one if things speed up quicker than I am anticipating.

Addressing this from a different angle: what happens to the home healthcare industry (of which I am a bottom tier worker) when the downward slope of the Long Descent makes itself apparent?  It will disappear.

The result of that is nothing short of horrible.  There are clients, consumers, and patients within this industry that fully rely on people like me to give them care, to feed them, clean them, and so on.  What happens when the means by which we are employed vanish?  Some folks will soldier on, doing what they can until they have nothing left to give.  Most will leave.  This will leave the government and families a couple of options, assuming these folks have any family alive.  They can take them into their homes, set up institutions or like apparatus again, at least for a while, or leave them where they are.  Not an easy thought, and certainly not something I like to write about.  However, there we are.  Unless communities start coming together and addressing climate change and peak oil now, and addressing the issue of access to healthcare, this is the horrible reality we will be facing.

I’m paid about a dollar above what a crew member at McDonald’s is paid.  When I/my community gets land and we’re established, my plan is to leave this industry.  Not because the people I served don’t deserve the services, not because they are lesser than I, but because my tribe, my people come first, and the kind of work that will be required to make such a thing work, much less be successful, is a full-time job.

For those who stay in this industry, with as little investment as there is in health care, things will get even worse if communities do not actively come together to bolster and improve these services.  Many of the local movements I addressed in Part 3 may be able to address needs on a local level if they plan for it. I don’t, however, think they will be able to address all needs.

Please, though, do not think I am giving folks a pass on this.  This does need to be addressed.  Taking care of the folks who cannot care for themselves is a humane thing to do, and it requires our consideration for how best to do so.  It is also not a cruelty to say “These are our limitations due to budget, space, etc. What can we do to solve this problem?  Who can we look to for help?  How can we best serve these members of the community?  If we lack the means to serve these people effectively, what can we do?”  That, I think, is key: these aren’t just clients when this goes from a company and its employees doing a job into a community coming together to work on how best to serve these people.  They’re community members.  They have Gods who care for them, Ancestors who care for them, and live among the vaettir.  I am no less than an able-bodied person for my diabetes.  Likewise, those I serve in my current job capacity are no less a person than I.

I have a vested interest in seeing non-able-bodied and disabled folks taken care of.  I’m a disabled person (diabetes, asthma, ADD), and so is my son and my wife.  People I care deeply for, who are chosen family and friends are non-abled and disabled.  Hell, if my tics (which I’m now taking an anti-seizure medication for) get any worse, I may need a lot of help someday.  It’s in my interest and that of my families’ interests, and going outward from there, in my community’s best interests to have a vibrant, viable, and sustainable community that can care for its own.

The basic questions of infrastructure, and the points I raised in the previous three posts will still be factors that will need to be addressed in some manner.  Without these addressed, the job of those who remain or become caretakers, home healthcare workers, and so on, will be that much harder.  Transportation, medication, and compensation will all need to be looked at on a local level.  The same with the costs of healthcare, short and long-term.

We will have to take a hard look at what we can afford to do with what we have where our communities are.  We will need to do this now and in the future in a world where resources are already hard to find, becoming harder and more environmentally and financially costly to find, refine, and produce. We wouldn’t be seeing companies looking to hydraulic fracturing, deep-water drilling, arctic oceans, or tar sands oil if we had a whole lot of low-hanging fruit left.  The EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) doesn’t make sense without high oil prices, and all of them are incredibly environmentally destructive to boot.  Look at the BP Oil Spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, the ongoing damage to Alberta, CA with the tar sands strip mining and extraction, and the ongoing damage being done in the Marcellus Shale area of PA.  The only reason any of these more expensive, and thus lower EROEI methods of fossil fuel extraction, refinement, and use, have gotten any traction was the incredible explosion of oil prices and dropping supply.

When/if a big crash comes during our lifetimes, we’ll be some of the first casualties, as soon as the last of the insulin in the fridge runs out. Simple as that, unfortunately. Nothing anyone has ever said on these topics convinces me of any other possibility, because no one has ever floated any other possibility (other than the idiots I heard several years back who said “That’s why we’re raising cattle, so I can go on beef insulin.” Uhh…unless industrial levels of beef slaughter are taking place, not enough insulin will be produced, dummy, to sustain your life, and your little herd of twenty cows will not last you even a year for that) which is remotely viable.

As I said in my comment, I’m of the opinion/understanding it is not a matter of if, but when. I see one of two general outcomes.  The first, is that the economic house of cards comes to crash and all the lack of investment our country has collectively made in its infrastructure comes home to roost, as we’re seeing in places near where I live such as Flint, MI or the poisoning of the Kalamazoo River by Enbridge Energy.  The other is that peak oil will slowly suck what life remains from the country via increasing energy costs exacerbated by our lack of investment in infrastructure, and lack of preparedness for a powered-down future. I believe a combination of these two scenarios over a period of 20-50 years, maybe longer if more folks get on-board, is most likely, since the economy is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels to do anything.

The only way that massive volumes of insulin are able to made is because of the meat and medical industry.  We can only do so much on a local level, especially in a powered-down future where the fossil fuels that helped a lot of folks to live goes away.  There’s only so much folks are going to be able to do, grow, or make.

And that you, I, and all of the polytheists in the U.S. and the world can’t actually do anything to stop or change this situation, no matter how local and active and right-relational we get with other things related to this situation might be, makes me absolutely angry and hopeless over this situation.

I liken this situation to Fimbulvinter and Ragnarök.  This is a situation that may have once been preventable, but it is one that we now face without that ability.  We can look forward, grim or joyful, but It is coming to meet us and we, It, through the weaving of Wyrd.  The big difference between The Long Descent and Ragnarök is that the Aesir, Vanir, Jotun, our Ancestors, and the landvaettir are with us should we be willing to ally, and will help us face this future if we are willing to do what we can where we can.  We’re not just living for our survival.  We will help to leave a world in which Lif and Lifthrasir can survive and thrive in.

So, I make of my anger, and times where hopelessness hits me, an offering to my Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and communities. I make of my education on how to live better with and upon Jörð and my other Gods, my Ancestors, and the vaettir, as an offering.  I make of the work I put my hands to as an offering.  I will keep going on, and do what I can to this end for as long as I can.  It is my duty.

A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part 3

December 20, 2015 14 comments

It is easy to understand why convenience is currently winning the hearts and minds of American consumers.  This has much to do with lower upfront cost to the consumer, while the consumer is able to put it out of their minds that much of the convenience we expect and pay for comes at the cost of someone else’s life, livelihood, home, and abysmally low pay or slavery.  Follow any given ‘cheap’ product, and you will find a pipeline of suffering for the animals and plants involved.  Look at any major clothing line or electronics company.  The neodymium mining poisoning Inner Mongolia, the gold in Nigeria in which there are children going blind and infertile, countless countries whose citizens labor for Nike, Gap, and Apple at slave wages or are slaves.  Lots of people are dying just to get a bit of the stuff out of the Earth, make a piece of clothing, or make another electronic gadget that feeds into these systems that keep products cheap for the consumers while costing a lot of people their lives, land, and sovereignty.  It happens here, too, whether you look at New York City’s garment district, falling wages for what once were solidly middle-class jobs, or the paltry amount, around $39,000 or less, that a lot of chicken farmers make per year.

The costs are hidden from the American consumer in terms of jobs, too.  Think about it. When was the last time you heard of a cobbler?  When was the last time you knew the person or the people who made your shoes?  Your clothes?

Resilience does not just mean that the system is preserved in a healthy way, but that people, and the environment are too.  Resilience in our own relationships, economically and personally, mean that we need to reweave our interdependent lives with one another here.  Recognizing that the child labor of a gold mine is wrong; it is another thing to divest ourselves from it as consumers.  Recognizing that there is blood on the diamond trade is one thing, but refusing to buy diamonds at all is a whole other story.  Recognizing that we do not want to support sweatshops or we want to buy American is easy to say, but it is in supporting better ways wherever we can that real change is made.  Resilience requires actions to preserve not only our relationships, but our own integrity as well.  Resilience is an active choice, an activity, and a way of living.  So too, is convenience.

This issue comes up quite a bit when the conversation is about something like the consumption of meat.  Most of these conversation are, themselves, red herrings.  What all of these various issues boil down to, is that so much of human labor and what used to be a lot of animal labor, are now done by increasingly convenient, complex machines which are able to be made because of cheap, abundant fossil fuels.

Think about it.

Whether the fumes choking cities, the heating of our planet via CO2, the plastic choking the oceans, the mounds of human, animal, and plant grief in places all over the world, the only thing that allows these cogs to move at all is cheap, abundant fossil fuels.

The only reason the meat industries are any kind of threat to the environment are because of the fossil fuel powered trade, transport, and machines that allow for the CAFOs and other industrial food/feedstock/animal raising/slaughtering operations to remain economically viable. The entire life cycle of the meat industry, the agricultural industry, and countless others, including the aforementioned on-demand delivery services, depend on tenuous, fragile systems.  From the truckloads of meat, plants, etc. that crisscross the country, wrapped in petroleum-derived plastics, shipped using incredible amounts of diesel delivered on petroleum-derived/made asphalt, kept cold using natural gas, coal, or oil-powered refrigeration technology in the holding areas, distribution centers, supermarkets, and consumers’ freezers/refrigerators, then cooked by means usually powered by coal, natural gas, or oil.  Keep in mind as well that the gas, coal, and oil that keeps the economy and trade moving, that lubricates the countless machines of capitalism, consumerism, trade, and industry, are all looked for, found, extracted, mined, processed, and refined, then transported and burnt, largely by diesel-powered machines.

Meat production itself is not the problem.  Rather, it is the means by which this incredibly wasteful cycle of goods, services, and means of production are kept afloat. That doesn’t mean that our meat consumption isn’t a problem, but it pales in comparison to the things that make such consumption economically viable and reduce the ability of smaller farmers, ranchers, and growers to support themselves and their communities. It’s the same cycle that enables the wholesale destruction of the environment in places that mine for rare earth minerals, like Nigeria and Inner Mongolia for things like gold and neodynium in order to continue cycles of consumption of things like the very laptop I’m typing on. None of the components that make this thing up, nor the power it uses to remain on, or the Internet itself, is without deep costs to the environment.

If we want a healthier relationship with meat, some peoples’ options are to simply stop eating it. That’s fine. Some simply cannot do that. A healthier relationship with meat doesn’t mean that all meat eaters just wholesale stop eating meat, it means developing better relationships with it, supporting local farmers/ranchers, and businesses that employ folks close to home and close down more of that big cycle of consumption I mentioned above.  If I want be healthier, my option is not to stop taking my medication right now.  It means I need to develop healthier relationships with my body and food, and work to get off the medication I can.  If we want healthier relationships between farmers, ranchers, markets, crafts, industries and the people they are made for and use them, we must make the effort as people regardless on which part of the relationship we are, to make things better so we all are more resilient, and our communities more stable.

Convenience today is predicated on cheap, abundant fossil fuels.  Peak oil won’t just bring challenges to our economy, it will stop its ability to move and expand.  Given how brittle our international economic and trade systems are, back in 2008 what nearly took down the house of cards was a housing and financial bubble combined with the soaring price of crude oil. That was a warning that should have shook all of us out of the mindset that we could avoid dealing with the problem of capitalism’s need for exponential growth to sustain itself, and the resultant use of energy to make that happen.

Peak oil is the bar that sets the hard limits to growth.  You cannot grow an economy at the scale we are used to if the economy cannot be empowered to function with cheap fossil fuels.  Peak oil is especially problematic for the United States, since we’ve given over almost all our transportation needs to diesel and gas powered vehicles, vehicles which deliver all of our goods, from food to medicine, from surgery supplies to toilet paper.  Our train system is deeply underfunded and barely adequate to deal with what is already on its rails.  Our bridges are falling apart, as are dams like this one, which is holding back water from 431,000 people in Texas.  We have basic infrastructure problems that need to be addressed.  My point here is not that we cannot address peak oil, but that top-down approaches from the federal government will not be adequate, and any response would be slow, at best.

What about regional responses?  With basic road funding here in Michigan taking the better part of a year just to approve funding (about half of this based on tax cuts, mind you, not raising revenues) on basic maintenance, there is little hope that there would be a top-down response commensurate with need, let alone enough to handle an emergency.  It is not that top-down approaches are not desirable, but that in all likelihood they will be too little too late, piecemeal, or simply lacking in their ability to deal with the situation.

So many of us who have chosen to deal with the problems of peak oil and climate change do so on the local level because that is where we can affect change the best on a practical scale.  It’s the permaculuralist that sets up shop down the road, growing food on their 2 acre plot.  It’s the charities, like Growing Hope and the Fair Food Network in Detroit, that increase peoples’ access to good, healthy food while teaching them how to grow it.  It’s the Transition Town Network, Reskilling Festivals, and Strawbale Studio that works on teaching folks how to do things, from arts and crafts, to making our own homes and growing our own food on a more local level.  These provide folks opportunities to make contacts who will sell to others who do not have the skills or space to do so.  It is not that peak oil is insurmountable, but that the ways our economy, industry, markets, crafts, and food production functions are inadequate to addressing the issues peak oil presents to us.

Peak oil represents a very stark choice.  We can keep trying to make this unsustainable way of life work for a little while longer, or we can learn to live with LESS (a term coined by JMG meaning Less Energy, Stimulation, and Stuff) and work towards a future in which our generation and those after have the abilities, skills, and resources to meet the challenges peak oil and climate change are going to bring.

This choice is why I am looking to engage in another way of living.  I am inspired by my animist and polytheist worldview to live in good Gebo with the world, with Jörð, Freyr, Gerda, Freya, our Ancestors, and the landvaettir.  I am inspired by my Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir to live better with this world, and to live with Them, and alongside Them, and help to bring forward a better future.  I am inspired by my animist and polytheist worldview and religion as a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen to align myself within this world and to this world in a way that benefits us both.  I am inspired by my work and role a Northern Tradition and Heathen shaman and priest to do these things as part of my duty to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, communities I serve, and the generations to come.  To not only be different in how I consume, but to be different in what I do, and how I give back to this world.

I view it as my duty to my best in this regard.  Duty to my Gods, to live well in the world, and within a community of folks dedicated to doing well by our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir.  Duty to my Ancestors, to live well and help raise the new generations with care, and with the skills necessary to face peak oil, climate change, and the challenges they present us.  Duty to my vaettir, including the landvaettir with whom we will live upon, align and work, live with and build good relationships.  Duty to the Warrior Dead who gave Their lives so we could live, the Military Dead to honor Their sacrifices and to teach the future generations their stories so They are not forgotten, and the other vaettir with whom we share this world, that we may come into better alignment, and relation.

I have no illusion that I alone, or even a small community can stop climate change or peak oil, but we can address it within our spheres of influence.  My hope is that it inspires action in others, and ripples through the communities we touch and weave with.  At the least, the next generation we raise, inspire, and welcome will be better prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change, peak oil, and the challenges we have yet to see that will come from them.  At the most we can inspire and promote local resiliency and ties, a refocus of national action on these things, and perhaps worldwide change in how we address peak oil and climate change.  If nothing else, we will improve our small community’s lot while honoring and working in better concert with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir in this work.  I can think of no better reason to pursue these goals than that.

 

Part 1 of this series is here.

Part 2 of this series is here.

For other explorations of this topic, look here:

The Religious Implications of Peak Oil

Where is the Ground?

A Polytheist Reflection and Response to Convenience, Consumption, and Peak Oil Part 2

December 17, 2015 9 comments

The challenge we face as a country in the face of peak oil and climate change is getting back to a more human-sized society.  A large part of the issue of getting things back to a manageable size is twofold: 1) we have a very poor concept of wealth in this country, and 2) convenience has eclipsed resilience in a big way.

In regards to our unhealthy view of wealth in this country, to start with, wealth is not money in a bank account.  It is an abundance of things of value.  Money is not value, but a measurement of value agreed upon as a representation of work.  Work is of value; money is given value to represent the value of goods, services, products, and labor rather than someone having to directly trade as in a barter system.  A good way to look at this is the Rune Fehu.

FehuFehu means ‘money, cattle, wealth’.  Cattle require land, and so, land is also a form of wealth, and the maintenance of a good herd of cattle is a means of sustaining wealth in the forms of cattle and land.  Likewise, the means to feed the herd, and so, the health of the land itself, is a form of wealth.  Resilience is bound up in wealth in many ways.  The first way is that resilience requires more investment and maintenance up front than convenience requires.  Another is that resilience provides a way for wealth itself to be maintained and grow in ways that sustain the production and maintenance of these sources of wealth.  Resilience in cattle-based land is making sure the herd does not overgraze, but eats its fill, and that it has enough nutrients in the soil and vegetation to provide for many generations of cattle, not just one.  Resilience in cattle-based land may require rotation of the animals, crops and foods sources.  Certain forms of resilient cattle-raising dispense with rotation, and cultivate the manure as a form of fertilizer, while working with the herd to maintain the integrity of the land.  Resilience may also require a culling every now and again to keep the herd manageable.  By contrast, convenience would require as many cattle as possible to be raised then slaughtered in a given timetable to maximize production and profit regardless of the destruction to the land, the pain to the cows, or the overproduction of the meat itself.

Resilient cattle-raising is not as convenient as on-site feedlot operations, but then, convenient ways of cattle raising come with deep drawbacks that have to be accounted for.  Convenience brings a great deal of challenges with it that resilient methods do not.  Among them are logistical challenges, sourcing, and securing the various production pipelines that assure that convenience remains so.  In CAFO operations the maximization of profit is extended at the risk of increase of infection in the animals.  To counteract this, animals are given antibiotics, both to increase resistance to disease, and increase muscle mass so there is more meat to sell come the slaughter.  This has a knock-on effect in two ways, since 70% of the recipients of antibiotics are farm animals.  One, it increases the rates of mutation and development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and two, each layer of complexity provides an extra kink in the system that can develop deep problems. Enough cattle get fed an antibiotic at a low dose, and it can make the whole damned herd develop an antibiotic resistant bacteria that overcomes the treatment.  That bacteria could then kill parts of or the entire herd, and should that spread, could overcome other herds.  If it passes transmission to humans, it can than affect the local, and then State, and possibly national population.  There are people dying now because there are bacteria that have become resistant to last-effort antibiotics.

Resilient methods of cattle raising do not have this issue of breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria.  While antibiotic free cattle may succumb to disease, they do not have a constant low-level dose of exposure to antibiotics in their food or through regular injections that a given bacteria can become resistant to.  Would or will bacteria develop that will kill cattle? Sure, but not at the rates we see with antibiotic resistant strains, pushed forward by the cattle and other meat industries use of antibiotics in everything from feed to direct injections.  While resilient methods sacrifice money upfront for this, in the long run they provide a safeguard to herd and human alike. Other points of failure in this system is the supply of antibiotics themselves and all the infrastructure and support systems that go into manufacturing them. Another point of failure is the feed itself, with the fossil fuels that are used in growing, spraying, and transporting it to the cattle. Other points of failure can be found in all of the infrastructure and support systems that go into producing and delivering the feed upon which CAFO and other industrial meat operators depend upon to be profitable.

Convenience is more a method of exploiting wealth than it is of ensuring its survival or growth.  Methods such as on-demand services rely on entire networks of services to support them in the first place.  Look to any on-demand service whether it is Uber, Createspace or Lulu, Amazon.com or online food delivery services like Grubhub, OrderUp, or fisheries like this one.  All of these require massive amounts of fossil fuels.  All of these services rely on built up infrastructure from the electrical grid, the roads, bridges, and other aspects of the highway system, the vehicles themselves, and the cheap labor that allow these things to be affordable.  All of these factors in turn require inputs of energy, whether oil, coal, or natural gas for initial construction, maintenance, and use.  Even the means to make renewable energy sources such as windmills, solar panels, and the like, require great inputs of oil and rare earth metals, like neodymium and gold, all of which in turn requires inputs of energy to mine, extract from the rock/silt, and refine.  By their nature, these systems are brittle.  They become more so the more complex they are.

Let’s say, for instance, that gas goes back up to $4 per gallon for the average consumer.  Uber would either get more expensive or fold.  Createspace, Lulu, and Amazon.com, and the other online delivery services make their business with direct delivery.  Gas prices cut directly into the delivery services’ bottom line, requiring a price increase.  If any segment in the supply line fails, whether paper manufacturers continuously failing to meet a quota for Createspace or Lulu, the delivery servicers unable to maintain their fleet as well as they need to meet demand, or the fishery unable to make a profit via online sales, entire industries oriented around the on-demand service will go down.  While it may take a while for the supply chain problems to come home to roost, sooner or later they will, as increasingly larger pieces of the economic pie are devoted to handle the rising costs associated with their business.

Let us go back to the example of cattle-raising. If a rancher relies upon online on-demand meat sales to keep their business going in such a scenario, they will find themselves paying for a hell of a premium with such a drastic rise in gas prices.  This is true not only for the delivery of the meat, but is also felt by little nips and bites from the monthly bills for services, like their electricity and internet, that allow them to make their money in the first place.  They have a choice after a certain point: they can increase costs to their on-demand consumers, and/or try to pivot and seek out a new customer base that is more local, or voluntarily go out of business.  One would hope the rancher would have local reciprocal relationships already active and established.  However, for those who rely on these internet sales to drive their business, convenience bypasses a lot of the resilient methods of developing relationships with customer and the land in favor of upfront profit driven by demand.  When that demand goes down so too does the business.  In the end, convenience for the producer and consumer alike costs a lot more than developing and maintaining a resilient system and reciprocal relationship with the consumer.  It may not produce money as quickly, but it maintains wealth, value and money flow with a great deal more care and certainty.

Coming up is Part 3, which explores why convenience is preferred over resilience, and how it makes systems that rely upon it weak.  It will also explore the avenues I and others are taking in addressing peak oil and climate change where we are.

Part 1 of this series is here.

 

For other explorations of this topic, look here:

The Religious Implications of Peak Oil

Where is the Ground?

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

December 16, 2015 10 comments

“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?

Why Animism and Polytheism are Radical Religions in Capitalist Societies

July 23, 2015 8 comments

A good deal of animism and polytheism’s power, as it is expressed in outward form, is that it directly challenges the overculture’s directions to consume and produce for their own sake.  Slavoj Žižek notes that products like Coke produce their own perpetual desire.  In “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”, he notes that Coke self-perpetuates by two ways, in that it makes one’s duty to consume and enjoy Coke, and that the consumption of it leads to the thirst that leads a person to want to consume it more.  After all, it is a drink, but by its nature it produces further thirst rather than satiating it.

The paradox of Coke is that you are thirsty, you drink it.  But, as everyone knows, the more you drink it, the more thirsty you get.

Polytheism demands us to understand that while pleasure, the satiation of thirst, and enjoyment may be side-benefits of our duties, enjoyment itself is not our duty.  The polytheist worldview demands that we see ourselves not as consumers, but participators in this world.  It also demands us to reject the idea of excess being with us forever.  Why?

Gebo is gift-for-a-gift.  While this gifting may not be an exact equivalent exchange, at least in the moment, the embrace of reciprocity requires the rejection of excess.  If one is constantly consuming there is no way to reciprocate.  Gebo requires a cessation of one’s consumption at some point, and a giving back at another.  For instance, in ancient Germanic and Scandinavian societies, one fed the guest until they were full.  It was on a guest to say they were full.  Part of the give and take of such a situation is that the guest is given food until they are satisfied, but the guest’s reciprocity is not to eat or drink to the detriment of the host.  Excess kills the Gebo relationship between guest and host.  The host may not ask the guest to come back, and additionally, the host may have been bereft of food or drink  to carry them through the coming winter without severely tightening their belt.  Likewise, a stingy host can make a guest feel unwelcome, or strain a relationship by not valuing the guest’s needs.

Expanding this notion of guest and host out further, humanity is severely unbalanced because there is simply no way that the excesses of mountain top removal or the destruction of old growth forest can be remediated.  While we cannot correct, at least within our lifetimes, the excesses of such a practice, it is within our purview as guest to the Earth Gods, such as Jörð, and to the landvaettir to live upon Her/Them in such a way that we conduct ourselves going forward as good guests.  Polytheism is radical in its view because it not only gives moral dimension to our relationship with the world as a or many living Beings, but to all other things that occupy that place.

Later in the documentary, Žižek states:

Antagonism, class struggles, and other tangents is something inherent to Capitalism. ..Instability is the way Capitalism functions.

Polytheism’s radicalization within capitalist and capitalist-leaning countries is present because it holds sacred what capitalism finds disposable; any social or legal contracts capitalism makes is easily shredded or ignored for the convenience of the movement of capital and the allocation of wealth.  Any piece of land is a bargaining chip or dollar amount, rather than possessing intrinsic value.  Honor and Gebo in regard’s to one’s word in capitalism is a matter of calculating loss or gain. This poisonous destruction of honor and Gebo can occur in government and private companies alike, as the calculating in this case is very similar. Look at how easy it is for a State to shed its duties to its people through earned retirement benefits, such as pensions.   Look at how easy it was for Detroit to cut so much from the bottom line of fixed-income workers, people who had given 20, 30 years to the city.  So quick as a document is signed, those things are cut.  Look at how easy it is for public lands to be sold to Graymont, 10,000 acres with at least a hundred years of ‘ownership’ are gained with barely a review, and a weak protest from the DNR.  So too with companies like BP, Exxon, and their ilk, who poison the land and balk when their money is demanded for the places they have destroyed in their exploration, mining, and refining processes.  They are hardly an exception, what with the clamoring of all these companies eager for what resources they can get their hands on, contributing little to nothing to the society that they take their tax incentives, resources, and cheap employment from.  Enbridge Energy, despite its excesses of capital and intentional risks it has taken with Michigan’s environment and accordingly the health of its citizens, and its failures to protect the Kalamazoo River, is still not sharing the risk assessment for the pipeline under the Mackinaw Bridge.  It is still pushing for the 60 year old pipeline to continue carrying oil despite the age of the pipeline, its track record, and the concerns of those of us who live near it, or whose waters will become poisoned when it leaks or breaks.

Animism and Polytheisms’ basic premise is a (or many) powerful social and spiritual contract(s), understanding(s), and/or relationship(s) between a worshiper and their God(s), Ancestors, and/or spirits.  Each offering builds up the relationship between them, further cementing this relationship, this social/spiritual contract expressed through reciprocity.  Each time Gebo is made, it furthers the spiritual growth and communication between the worshiper and their Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir.  Exponential growth is not part of the expectation of a polytheist viewpoint because 1) such a thing is an impossibility in all but the abstract, and 2) our own Gods can and in many cases, do go through life cycles or ways of change themselves.  Our Gods do not remain static, so our relationships cannot be so.  If we cannot expect our Gods to do such a thing, how can we expect ourselves, or our world to?

Ideology is not simply imposed on ourselves. Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world, how we perceive each meaning, and so on and so on…to step out of ideology is a painful experience.

In this way, with using They Live as the backdrop, Žižek talks about ideology as our framing device.  How it is formed really without us thinking, it is our response to the world, how we frame our understanding and reactions to it.  It is the basis for how we relate to one another, things, the world around us, the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir.  It helps us to determine what we cultivate in our lives because it determines what is important to cultivate in the first place.

The extreme violence of liberation.  You must be forced to be free.  If you only trust your spontaneous sense of ideology you will never get free.  Freedom hurts.

Animists and polytheists, myself included, have written about the Filter as, among other things, a Being/thing that acts as a filter on our relationships with the Holy Powers.  One of its most insidious and hard to disrupt ways of doing this is acting through the spontaneous ideologies generated by the way that our society hard-conditions us to accept the ways of doing things as ‘normal’, and to reject the ways I have talked above in which we are called as polytheists to live with the world and the Holy Powers.  There is a loss that comes with accepting and understanding ourselves as polytheists.  We lose the ability to indulge in our over-culture’s wanton destruction of the environment, indigenous peoples, and sacred places.  We lose the ability to stand by and be at ease with the way our energy is mined for, made, and pollutes.  We lose the ability to be mindless consumers.  It is far easier to be so, if only because that is the dominant ideology.  Lived polytheism requires thought, discernment, care, living relationships, and an entirely different frame of mind than the over-culture.  After all, the ways of relationality in capitalism is through the consumed thing.

It was Marx who, long ago, emphasized that a commodity is never just a simple object that we buy and consume.  A commodity is an object full of theological, even metaphysical niceties.  Its presence always reflects an invisible transcendence.  The classical publicity for Coke quite openly refers to this absent, invisible quality.  Coke is The Real Thing, or Coke, That’s It.  What is that It, the Real Thing?  Its not just another positive property of Coke, something that can be described or pinpointed to something more. The indescribable excess which is the object cause of my desire.  In our postmodern societies we are obliged to enjoy.  Enjoyment becomes a kind of weird, perverted duty.

As Žižek points out, the object itself becomes imbued with meaning beyond its function.  It becomes a statement of who we are.  The shortcut to relationality in this over-culture is that we are what we consume.  A person who wears (buys) flannel and listens to (buys) records is a ‘hipster’.  A person who eats (buys) a wide varieties of food for enjoyment as well as sustenance is a ‘foodie’.  So on and so on, identity becomes less what we do for a living, our ethnicity, religion, etc., and more what we consume.  There are several branches of Christianity that fall into this trap of identification with what is consumed as well, i.e. Prosperity Gospel, and megachurch Evangelical Christianity.  New Age in its consumption of ‘spiritual tourism’ and ‘The Secret’, especially that idea of the genie in it, play right into this.  Pagans, animists, and polytheists can play into this with the idea that one must have things to be in and identified with the religion, and fall into this trap.

It is hard to break this identification with what we buy.  In some cases it is damned near impossible.  Our necklaces, for instance, act as shorthand symbol-sets for Who we follow or what tradition we are part of.  In the case of Wiccans, the way a pentacle’s points face or if they wear jet and amber may say something about who they are within a tradition, or what degree they are.  Even the act of not buying things is a way of defining our relationships, and who we are.  Gifting has long been a way of solidifying alliances, paying homage to one another, and furthering relationships.  So too, has been the making and gifting of things.  I think what polytheism challenges us to do, is rather than dispense with the idea of relationships and relationality through objects, is to dispense with the identification with objects.  That is, not seeing ourselves as Pagans, animists, or polytheists because we wear a pentacle, Mjolnir, etc., but because of how we identify those objects as markers of our tradition, group, etc.  Granted, this is far easier to apply as an idea to our nascent religious movements.  It is far harder to apply to the over-culture in which we live.

That is not to say that sacred objects lose their importance because our over-culture relies on things as identification and commoditization/consumption as relationship.  Rather, the reason that sacred objects break this mold is they are a way of relating to the Holy Powers and vice versa, whether the object in question is a statue of a God, a cup dedicated to offerings to the Holy Powers, a Mjolnir one wears in mindfulness and dedication to one’s Gods, or a ritual tool of some kind.  They have identity that springs out of the relationships they help facilitate or are part of rather than being a means of identity that they ascribe to us.  These layers can build, since sacred objects can be made of many things, including naturally occurring items, recycled materials, including man-made materials and mined things.

We cannot consume our sacred objects.  They do not belong to us, at least, not exclusively.  In the case of my Gods’ statues, while I did buy them, they are not status symbols or ways in which I identify, but embodied vessels of relationality.  If they were all gone tomorrow, while I would be sad as I like them for their beauty and function, my identity as a Heathen and Northern Tradition Pagan would not disappear nor would my relationship with the Gods.

Within an animist/polytheist understanding of things, objects themselves need not lose their importance to us.  However, the importance of objects changes as our relating to the world changes. So too does the importance of money, and consumption.  The whole edifice that keeps capitalism afloat begins to crumble when we cease to relate to our bank account, our objects, and our careers solely as markers for who we are.  Without these internal methods of control to shackle us to meaning we can begin to take apart the ways that capitalism forces us into soul-killing ways of life, ways that ultimately will lead to the cessation of the ability of our planet to continue to give us life.

There is a difference between sacred objects and places, though.  Lacking relics, such as saints’ bones in the Catholic tradition, most sacred objects in Paganism and polytheism can be replaced if lost or destroyed.  Sacred sites, however, cannot.  When a sacred site is destroyed, whether it is the Al-Lat lion statue at Palmyra or the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, or further back Donar’s Oak in Hesse Germany, it changes how the people relate to the land.  Should the sacred grove in my back yard be destroyed, it will change how I relate to the land even if the trees regrow.  While we have few outright temple spaces, how we relate to places remains important.  Altars and shrines feature heavily in my family’s religious life, and when they change, they usually mark some kind of change in our seasons, and/or relationships with the Gods.  Some day, when we get our own land, we will be making some kind of temple space(s).  Whether it is open to the public or not, it will be for the Holy Powers.  In order for this sacred land to continue to be so, it needs to continue to be blessed, cared for and used by the Holy Powers, and cared for and worked with by us, as a meeting place.  Sacred places are places where relationships with the Holy Powers come forward.  Not every place is suitable for this, whether it is this place is isolated and gives greater ability for focus, or this place is in a place a God or vaettr likes, or this is where our Ancestors are buried.

Sacred places are touchstones.  While they, as with sacred objects, do not contain the relationship as a whole, they are places of relationality.  We relate to the Holy Powers through them.  The identification of Donar’s Oak as Irminsul, and a holy place, was such because trees were held in sacred regard by the Germanic people to start with, and this Oak was understood to be Donar’s, and a representation of the World Tree.  If we cannot relate to objects and places in a sacred manner, they can be divorced from relationality with the Holy Powers, and with us.  When that desecration happens then can places and things be commoditized.  It happened when the Enclosures were made, and it happens every time a sacred mountain has sewage water dumped on it so wealthy people can ski, or thousands of acres of old growth forest are sold so companies can get timber and mine limestone.  When the sacred places are desacralized, or, to borrow a term, disenchanted, so too are the things which come from the lands.

Žižek notes that we are not merely buying things when we buy things.  We often are buying the message and ideology right along with whatever it is at hand.

Are we aware that when we buy a cappuccino from Starbucks we are buying quite a bit of ideology?  Which ideology?  You know, when you enter a Starbucks store, it is usually displayed with a poster that says ‘Yes, our cappuccino is more expensive than others, but’ and then comes the story, ‘we give 1% to Guatemalan children to keep them healthy or water supply for some Saharan farmers or to save the forests so we can grow organic coffee’ or whatever.  Now, I admire the ingenuity of this solution.  In the old days of pure, simple consumerism, you bought a product and then felt bad…The idea was you had to do something to counteract your pure, destructive consumerism.  What Starbucks enables you to be consumerist without any bad conscience because the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism, is already included in the price of a commodity.  You pay a little bit more and you are not just a consumerist, but  you do also your duty towards environment, the poor, starving people in Africa, so on and so on.  It is, I think, the ultimate form of consumerism.

The problem with consumerism is how rampant and tied in to daily life it is.  Often, there is talk of ‘voting with your dollars’, yet, some of the most exploitative practices of poor people around the world are perpetuated by the poor of countries like ours because of the cost and availability of food that is organic and better for the workers.  The idea of ‘voting with your dollars’ ignores income disparity; those who use their dollars the most cannot afford to ‘vote’ for better wages or a healthier environment.  The same is the issue with clothes.  Indeed, most any consumer item has this issue.  Companies like Wendy’s are still balking at a one cent raise for the Farm Workers’ Union that picks the tomato crops for their products, denying them better care for themselves and a marginal difference in their income.  Clothing companies will regularly relocate if the local population agitates too much for protections or increased wages.  The reason companies can squeeze profits like this out of sweatshop labor is because the most people are able to buy them for the premium the company charges, paying cents on the dollar (if they pay at all) to their workers.  Yet, the supposedly more ethical options, i.e. fair trade, come with their own problems.  Who ensures these products and services are actually fair trade?  Are they?  Are the standards for this across the board or voluntary?  Does the money put forth for these things actually help the intended cause, i.e. the environment?  If we agree we cannot consume our way to a better life, we cannot expect to pay in this way for healthier forests or healthier people.  The resources to get the job done are not there if this is the extent of our involvement.  Žižek goes on to say:

We should not simply oppose a principled life dedicated to duty and enjoying our small pleasures.  Let’s take today’s capitalism.  We have, on the one hand, the demands on the stipulation on the capital, which push us towards profit-making, expansion, exploitation and destruction of nature, and, on the other hand, ecological demands.  Let’s think about our prosperity and our own survival, let us take care of nature, and so on.  In this opposition between ruthless pursuit of capitalist expansion and ecological awareness, duty, a strange, perverted duty, of course, duty is on the side of capitalism as many…analysts noted.  Capitalism has a strange religious structure.  It is propelled by this absolute demand: capital has to circulate, to reproduce itself, to expand, to multiply for itself, and for this goal, anything can be sacrificed, up to our lives, up to nature, and so on.  Here, we have a strange, unconditional injunction.  A true capitalist is a miser who is prepared to sacrifice anything for this perverted duty.

Rather than engage in perpetual desire or the excesses of capitalism as if it were a duty, one of animism and polytheism’s main challenges to the dominant paradigm are duty to the Holy Powers.  Duty requires discipline and discernment to tell one’s duty from one’s distractions, and to follow through on that duty.  Duty is often inconvenient, and can be painful.  Rather than act as the true capitalist, who sacrifices of and from others for material gain, good questions to ask ourselves are: “What are we prepared to sacrifice for our duty to Them?  What is that duty?  How would They have us engage in it?  How do we live best with the world around us, in respect for It/Her/Him/Them?  How do we live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers?”

If, as Žižek puts forth, ‘a true capitalist is a miser who is prepared to sacrifice anything for this perverted duty’, then it is worth asking what we are prepared to do to deny the sacrifice of our world, our lives and our religions to the ever-hungering maw of capitalism.  What can we do right now?  What can we do in the future?  What can we leave to future generations so they can grow well, and away from this perversion of duty, and of life?  How best can we help future generations grow well in relationship with the Holy Powers, and in healthy communities that support them?

Animism and polytheist religions are radical in capitalist societies because they cannot merely go along with the capitalist narrative and remain authentic.  Profit above all else cannot take place in authentically lived animist and polytheist life; to do so is to deny our own religions’ and traditions’ teachings on reciprocity and our place in the Worlds.  It denies that the land spirits should have their own considerations met in regards to the use of Their bodies and spirits.  Profit above all else requires we deny the sacred duties we have in regards to the Holy Powers.  It requires we deny the sacredness of the land and all that comes from it in service to the expansion and retention of capital.  The radicalism of animism and polytheism is that it requires us to deny the ‘true capitalist’, the miser, and those who serve them, and to live an engaged life with the Holy Powers.  It requires we not to offer up in service to the perverted duty of capital and capitalism, but to do our sacred duties to the Holy Powers. To live an engaged animist and/or polytheist life is to give of, from and through ourselves for our Gods, Ancestors, spirits, and communities.  It is to live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers, and with one another.  It is to live with the Earth as a good guest.  If we are to live in good Gebo with the Holy Powers then capitalism’s ideology is one we cannot support, and must deny wherever we are able.

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