Monday, June 14, 2010

Reponse to the peak oil story in the New York Times

Reponse to the peak oil story in the New York Times

Hi all, I’m Jennifer Wilkerson of Oakton, VA! And boy am I ever humbled to have been featured in the New York Times story ‘Imagining life without oil, and being ready.’

I took a class from an amazing spiritual teacher along with people who are doing great things in the world.

I’m just a hard-working citizen who is on a journey of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment. I have a long way to go. I still have stacks of paper towels and packaged food in my kitchen – I’m not ‘no impact woman’ (yet), but I am trying to do more today than I did yesterday to become a good citizen of the Earth.

Why do I prepare for this? Because to me, it means being a good citizen.

I would rather be prepared than not – for the same everyday reasons of uncertainty about the future I have a spare tire and renters insurance. If I could predict the future, I would be very wealthy. I only know that the people who have predicted collapse have also predicted the things that are currently happening in the economy, so I think I’ll listen to them.

I worry about people who will become afraid and allow themselves to be taken advantage of by buying, for example, a survival capsule of seeds that wouldn’t be viable anyway after so many years. (The best way to keep a line of heirloom vegetables going is to actually grow them year after year.) Likewise, to keep a skill alive, even if it is never needed, we need to pass it on to our children before the knowledge is lost.

This is why I chose to learn gardening. I don’t expect to produce enough food on my deck to feed a family of four – what I’m doing is logging experience. When should I start seedlings? What’s eating my eggplants? How can I avoid using pesticides? I read about it for long enough – but by actually doing something, even a little something, I’m learning much faster. And at the end of all this learning, what then? Do I sit and wait for the world to collapse with my canned goods tucked away in the basement? I hope not!

I need to ensure that I have well fed neighbors! If people in my community also have some skills of self-sufficiency, they will be less afraid and hopefully less likely to react irrationally to any ‘rebalancing’ that could happen now that ‘the party’s over’, as the IMF puts it. Once we have the basics of food, shelter and safety under control, we would be free to focus on the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

I don’t hope for collapse. I hope for the best – I hope we transition off of fossil fuel by getting radically local. I hope I gain some muscles from working in the garden. I hope I snack on tomatoes instead of packaged candy bars. I hope I can be part of a greater web of local resilience. And I hope I can make a difference in the lives of others and in the preservation of our planet’s gifts because we are all connected.

We have always seen ‘boom in doom’ I feel like Andre’s classes at Post Peak Living are taught in the spirit of helping people to become resilient – FEMA and the CDC say all the time that we should be prepared for emergencies but many of us, including myself, are not prepared for anything other than a three day disruption of food, water and power. If many natural or economic calamities happen at once, I feel like the government and our emergency response systems could be overwhelmed and I am doubtful that the government could ‘bail me out.’ While I would be grateful for their assistance if they could help me, I would feel like a better citizen and more empowered if I could take care of my own needs (put on my own oxygen mask first) so that I could turn around and help my neighbors. What Andre, Carolyn, and others are teaching is resilience, community, compassion and respect for the forces that are greater than us. It is a labor of love for them and I wish them all the best success.

What I really want people to know is that they are not crazy or delusional for worrying about peak oil, climate change, or economic collapse. These are very real fears and you must process and understand these fears before you do anything else. It is important to work with a practitioner, group or church who can validate your fears, not dismiss them as ‘generalized anxiety.’ I am pretty sure that I experienced ‘existential depression’ after learning about peak oil and I feel like a mainstream therapist would have put me on ‘happy pills’ without acknowledging my fears as being valid or real and I would have never had the opportunity, like I did with Carolyn, to address my grief. I feel that her book Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse

Reponse to the peak oil story in the New York Times

is so important because it doesn’t trivialize my awareness-related anxiety. You may have a hard time with this book if you haven’t been initiated into the idea of collapse. (I wish we could call it ‘rebalancing’ instead of ‘collapse’!) Check out the books and links in my sidebar for a balanced set of information.

I think that people who are unaware of peak oil will not understand what’s happening to them over the coming years. They will or are experiencing their own personal financial collapse. They will see gas prices rise and then fall due to lower demand, only to rise again, and so on. I saw a story in the Washington Post over a year ago about a couple where the man killed his wife and then committed suicide because they were losing their house. I cried for them because I felt both helpless to do anything for them and guilty for having a good career. I wished so greatly that they knew it was ok to feel so much grief, and I wished that there were a place for them to go. I had visions of setting up an organic farm for people like them – it would have had sustainable housing and teachers to show them new skills like permaculture so that they could be with nature, start a new livelihood, and feel safe, empowered and peaceful. I want to do good things for people, communities and our planet, but first I have to deal with my own feelings of shame, fear, and sadness so that I don’t burn out as I did last year. The people who are doing the hard work of environmental and economic clean-up, social work and sustainable design are, I feel, at risk for burning out or being very depressed if they do not find tools for dealing with their emotions.

Reponse to the peak oil story in the New York Times

I also need to find people like me who are more aware of the state of the world. I censor my words all the time partially because I feel others will label me a ‘doomer’, though that’s been taken care of thanks to the Times.

Reponse to the peak oil story in the New York Times

I originally didn’t want to talk to the Times because I have such a great fear now of others seeing me as insane for thinking that I need to prepare for collapse. But I decided that Carolyn’s work is too important for my own fears and my own ego to stand in the way. I find it hard not to care about fitting in with the norms prescribed to my by society, but as a result of this class I have realized how self-centered my thinking can be and I am learning to let go so that I can do the work that needs to be done, so that I can discover my true purpose, and so that I can be fully open to uncertainty.

By taking Carolyn’s class, I found a way to free my mind from worry and replace it with compassion and action. I was suddenly able to look at my whole life and see what I had been ignoring because I was so absorbed with worry about collapse. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I wasn’t taking care of my health. I wasn’t paying off enough debt or saving enough money. I wasn’t being ‘present’ with my family because my thoughts were occupied with worry.

Now I’m actually working on my garden, losing weight, spending time with my family, and getting out in the community. I’m going to an Urban Farming Summit on Friday!

What started it all: worrying about where to buy a house

A lot of my worry was stemming from deciding where to live. Our main criteria is that we only buy a house we can afford on one income in the event that one of us loses a job. When I first read the peak oil and ecological collapse literature last March, my knee jerk reaction was to set up a farm in the country where there was plenty of water. I rationalized that I could set up a non-profit farm to help others reskill and learn permaculture, then sell the food at local farmers markets.

Not only did I not have enough money to buy a farm in Northern Virginia, I also don’t know how to farm. So this was a bit of a fantasy that was dispelled by my personal economic conditions and by Joel Salatin’s book You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise

Reponse to the peak oil story in the New York Times

. While I probably ‘could’ farm, I would be doing it by myself while my husband worked and I couldn’t be sure that, 20 years from now, my son would want to stay near the farm to help. I decided I would be happy with a little garden, and have since decided that I would even be ok signing up for a CSA. (I do really want to learn how to garden, though, because it makes me happy.)

Last summer I visited a local Virginia eco-village. We could afford a plot in this community (we were unsure how we would afford to build a house, though), and was it ever beautiful! The people are so nice. When I visited, I only heard birds, no highway or air-conditioner hum. The houses were LEED certified with passive solar designs and solar hot water systems. The new straw bale house they’re building had a grey water system that was the first of its kind in this state. They plan to build a community house and hire an organic farmer. It was just a beautiful, peaceful place to visit. We decided against living there because I would have to take a 2 hour train ride to work, and my husband’s career is now so far from this place that it would be a 3 hour commute each way.

I have to say that my dear, dear huband has been the most patient man through all of this. Yes, there were many times at the dinner table when he was tired of hearing the latest news about peak oil, climate change or economic collapse – most people do. But when I said I wanted a farm, he said ‘let’s do it.’ When I said I wanted to live in a Yurt, he thought it sounded like a cool idea. When I said I didn’t want to buy a typical box of a house in the exurbs just to cash in on the tax credit, he understood. But I’ve had to do a heck of a lot of talking about these issues to get my family to understand because the cognitive dissonance is just too great. Ultimately, we both just want our family to be together and safe and he just wants me to be happy, and for that I am blessed.

For now, we have renewed our lease on a townhouse near Vienna, VA. It’s not off the grid and I would be worried about the price of heating and cooling the place in the future, but for now, it’s a good deal. We pay much less in rent than what we would have to pay if we had bought the place. We’re in an excellent school system in a strong community with bountiful sidewalks, bike trails and farmer’s markets. We’re not far from a Metro stop. I have a tiny farm on my deck and in my courtyard. My neighbors are very nice people.

If I won a million dollars, we would buy a few acres close to where we live now and build a passive house or buy and retrofit an existing house. I would set up a teaching market garden so that others can learn new skills. Since winning the lottery is unlikely (especially since I don’t play), I’m playing a waiting game to see what happens with the housing market.

I would love to see Community Solution’s Agraria idea take off: If it were in a town like Vienna, VA, I would move into one of these places in a heartbeat!

I am lucky and humbled to work for an international company with sound finances and a history of changing course or innovating when needed. With as much as I’ve learned, I haven’t been spooked away from this company. In fact, working here has made me more aware of global issues and has made me a better person! I am surrounded by compassionate people and the company has an honest commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

I am frustrated by my complete lack of time to do anything other than commute, work, and sleep. Of course I would rather spend the day with my son, garden and bike around town and meet other transition groups than have a long commute and sit in a cube like I do now, but I have debt to pay off and a low-carbon lifestyle to save for, so if I have to work right now, this is a great place to be working and I am grateful to have the opportunity to learn and grow with my co-workers.

My plan for the coming year is to keep learning how to grow veggies, get in shape, get rid of the stuff in our house that we don’t need, pay off debt, keep learning new skills like mad (starting with Sharon Astyk’s Adapting in Place class), stop buying stuff that has a lot of embodied energy or uses energy when possible, get involved in my community, and relax into the flow of whatever comes next.


I have a feeling that my boat
Has struck, down there in the depths,
Against a great thing.
And nothing happens!
Nothing, silence, waves
Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
And we are standing now, quietly, in the new life?

— Juan Ramon Jimenez

Bills ignore ratings agenciesNew York Times on Peak Oil..and the Problem of History

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