The Death of Guarantees

My church had an end-of-summer outdoor service and festival intended both for members and interested non-members alike a few weeks back. It was a typical summer spread: hot dogs, chips, cookies and drinks. The service was well-attended, and everyone stayed for the grub. While I was sitting under a tree trying to enjoy a free lunch while simultaneously trying to keep an eye on several preschoolers (not an easy task), I thought about how this time of year was celebrated in the past. Late Summer and early Fall, being harvest time, have traditionally been the time for feasts and celebrations in many different cultures. The weather is great, nature has yielded up most of her bounty for the year, and cooler temperatures announce winter’s advance.

In eras gone by, people would feast during these times, knowing that adding a little fat to one’s bones now might mean the difference between life and death in the depths of winter, when food stocks would be continuously drawn down until springtime once again signaled the start of a new planting season. Nowadays, it’s different. I noticed more than a few people either abstaining from eating much, or making comments about how they shouldn’t eat this, or they’re fat enough already, etc. Several enterprising kids were taking advantage of their parents’ diverted attention to take up station at the cookie table and proceeded to wolf down 10,000 calories’ worth of sugar & fat in as short a time as possible, but for the most part, people ate a restrained amount, and there was plenty of food left over at the end. For some reason, I noticed this trend, and it got my thinking about how divorced we have become from the land and the cycle of the seasons.

I’ve mentioned several times in the past that one of the main ways our oil-driven industrial culture has changed us is that it has allowed us to nullify the seasons, and this is another example of that. There’s no urgent need to celebrate the fall harvest anymore. Most of the food we east is grown elsewhere and trucked in, and if we run out of anything, we can just zip down to the foodmart and get some more. If the store is out of something, we are indignant (the phrase “I hate my Cub” has been a standard around my household for this very reason). ‘Seasonal foods’ to most of us are simply things we prefer to eat at different times throughout the year; it has nothing to do with limited availability anymore. When the current oil-fired paradigm of the American Dream finally breaks down, we may find ourselves forced back into some of these older rhythms of life whether we like it or not.

Things like the year-round availability of foodstuffs and the like are treated as guarantees that we expect and demand out of society. The availability of cheap, plentiful energy has allowed us to not work hard for those things that are crucial to our core needs, and when that safety net starts fraying, or collapses entirely, we will have a number of these guarantees revoked.

We are able to produce so much cheap food that we can waste it, or spurn it because we’re too fat already. If we cannot afford to purchase our food for one reason or another, society has guaranteed that we will be able to keep from starving, no matter what, without working for it.

We are able to use as much power as we like to keep ourselves comfortable and entertained. We are guaranteed enough heat to keep ourselves alive throughout the coldest winter even if we are flat broke.

We can use and abuse our bodies through food, drugs, tobacco, alcohol, or general laziness and then receive medical attention to help fix us and/or keep us alive. Even if we have no health insurance, we are guaranteed medical attention at any emergency room near us, no matter the cost.

We are guaranteed a monthly stipend of sorts from the government simply for making it to ‘retirement age,’ a moving target that keeps getting farther and farther away for each successive generation of Americans.

These guarantees, along with others, will not survive the coming collapse of the US economy. We are starting to see that collapse now, with the deflation of the housing market, and spurious labor statistics from the government that aren’t telling us how for every high-paying manufacturing or professional position we eliminate is being replaced by more and more fast food and boxmart jobs. As the middle class continues to be destroyed in this slow-motion bifurcation of the USA, the government will be less and less able to live up to the promises that it has made to whole generations of people, with drastic consequences both for society and for our government.

When people find out that the ‘help’ they receive from the state won’t be enough to keep them in the standard of living they have become accustomed to, they will have a number of ways to voice their displeasure. I wouldn’t be surprised to see everything from a re-energized populist movement and massive political change, food riots and social upheaval, to mass migrations as those parts of the USA that are totally dependent on cheap power revert back to their pre-1940’s population bases. The main change is that people will have to relearn how to support themselves, and that will be a hard lesson for many of us, regardless of the reason.

We all can’t run off to the boonies and become subsistence farmers, nor can we retreat to a bunker somewhere and try to ride things out. The changes that will affect our society will take a while to fully shake out, and they will be permanent. 2010 seems to be the date of choice for some of the most-repackaged oil analysts for the all-time peak in oil production, and after that we’ll have a long period of chaos, I think, as first prices rise sky-high for anything that relies on oil (i.e. most everything), and then collapse as the world economies collapse under their own weight and revert to a simpler way of life. When nature imposes her will on us, we will have no choices but to adapt or perish. That will require us to re-learn the skills that our forbearer took for granted, and the early adopters will be needed to teach others. Those people who have the skills to to help people survive the transition to a low-energy way of life will be valued members of society. Skills like farming, green building, and manufacturing of necessities like clothing, shoes, furniture, etc, will be much more useful to most people than being a mortgage broker, travel agent or government bureaucrat. We have some time to learn these skills, and we’ll have some time as we slide down the backside of the production curve to help teach others.

This train of thought takes me back to our late summer festival at church, where people were simply celebrating being together instead of celebrating a bountiful harvest that could take them all the way through winter’s gauntlet. Perhaps we’ll see a time in the future where the harvest festivals will regain their past glory as the highlight of the year for food. People will need to take a much more active role in safeguarding their yearly survival, since most of the guarantees they grew up expecting will have long since vanished. The only guarantee we will have left is that once things really come to a head, they will never be the same.

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