Monday, February 27, 2006

Autarky, and Stormy Weather

au·tar·ky or au·tar·chy
  1. A policy of national self-sufficiency and nonreliance on imports or economic aid.
  2. A self-sufficient region or country.
from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: 2000

I ran across this word (and a lot of other words I'd never read or heard) in James Kunstler's The Long Emergency. Here's a short review on Treehugger that will give you an idea of the what the book covers and its tone. It's depressing, to put it lightly. It has deeply impacted my thinking (even though my thinking was already heading that way). We are moving toward the creation of sustainable societies whether we like it or not, and the journey there will be painful and difficult. Of course, Kunstler is just one man, and I'm not sure all his predictions will be spot-on (he's not either) ... but if he's even half-right, we're in for some rude awakenings. While all this is happening (Peak Oil, global warming, oil-based wars), I am amazed people are still buying cars and new carpet and meat. I'm amazed but I also understand it. Our culture is balanced so heavily on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, and we're so many generations removed from being farmers and craftsmen and local businesspeople, we simply can't fathom a different way of life. My common-sense American brain resists the notion that our whole economic system could collapse when the oil goes away, or more realistically, when it becomes too expensive to retrieve. But every time I try to think of a way around it, maintaining our destructive lifestyles, it just doesn't seem possible. Meanwhile, fossil fuels and rampant, unchecked growth are destroying our planet. I may curse myself later for saying it, but there's a part of me that can't wait for the oil to run out. This is such a crazy time to be alive. There's no question that humans are smart and we're not disappearing anytime soon. How will we cope with the changes as they become impossible to ignore? I'm terrified and fascinated. I have recently decided, however, that it's still OK to enjoy life. I'm doing my best to find peace and contentment and joy while minimizing my impact, and preparing for difficult times ahead.

Some other equally cheerless information: maybe I am way behind, but I didn't realize the severity of the hurricane situation. We are all aware of the horrific destruction of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but here are some additional hard facts outlined in a recent column by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, entitled "Watermark: Can southern Louisiana be saved?"
  • There are usually about eleven or twelve storms named per year by the National Hurricane Center. In 2005, there were twenty-seven.
  • Of the twenty-seven storms, fifteen developed into full hurricanes, which was a record.
  • In the course of an average decade, three or four Category 5 hurricanes form in the North Atlantic. There were three of these hurricanes in 2005 alone.
  • Lower sea-surface temperatures have prevented hurricanes from forming in the South Atlantic, since recording of storms began. In March 2004, a hurricane formed in this region for the first time.
The answer to the question posed by the article's title appears to be a resounding "No" ... although, understandably, a great number of residents of the area want their homes and communities restored. I can't imagine the feelings of displacement and emptiness that would accompany this kind of tragedy. However, can we allow the expense and waste of rebuilding this area? Judith Curry, chair of Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences states:

"Speaking from the climate and the environmental-science perspective, a hundred years from now there's just no way there's going to be a [New Orleans] there. You can fight it. We can rebuild it and wait until it gets wiped out again. ... Maybe a colossal engineering effort can do something, but at some point that is going to fail. This is just the way geology and climate work. You can't fight it forever."

It's an interesting commentary that can be applied to our whole way of operating in the United States. When the oil dwindles to a trickle, desperate and massive attempts to hold on to our lifestyles and economy will be front-page news, and people will cling to these like branches hanging over a raging river. The more I learn, the more I am certain that it simply won't work to live this way. The sooner we begin be building our local autarkies, the better.

I'm going to start my first garden this spring.


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