Thursday, May 13, 2010

Planning for the Apocalypse

Plan for the apocalypse, or attempt to avert it? Play for a soft peak-oil landing, or assume the worst? I am not haunted or even very interested by this kind of question any more, and I have been trying to pinpoint why.

Partly I think because I stagger every day under the weight of the present suffering of the world -- here, in one of its most comfortable corners. As Barry Lopez said, every single person you see on the street could tell you a story about his or her life that would break your heart. When you spend considerable time, as I do, backstage, in the dressing rooms of people's lives, you get a better sense for the enormity and ubiquity of pain. If you're not comfortably sequestered from the sick and the dying, you get a better understanding of just how close we all are to breaking, and how many of us do. So you tell me there's going to be more pain than I can imagine, and I just shrug. What else is new?

I also labor under the curse of having written down my predictions of disaster when I was in my twenties. Many horrible things have happened since then, but none of them were ones that I predicted, except for the inexorable extinction of species. And good things have happened which, if anybody had predicted them, I would have dismissed with contempt as the worst self-indulgent pipe dreams. The Soviet Empire collapsing peacefully? Not a single hostile nuclear explosion in sixty-five years of bristling proliferation? The skies of Los Angeles and Portland clearer and healthier to breathe than thirty years ago? Still being able to publish, unmolested, anything I like to say, despite the continual expansion of surveillance and secret police agencies in my Secure Homeland? Ridiculous notions, all of them. Impossible.

So I have come to the conclusion, that, although my concerns were all perfectly valid and well-founded, I'm a rotten prophet. The most horrible events took me completely by surprise. The Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide, were not even on my radar. AIDS came out of left field. Horrible environmental disasters have happened, and are happening, and I don't see how we are to avoid turning much of the planet into uninhabitable waste land – but it hasn't happened exactly – or even, let me admit, even approximately -- as I expected it to.

Nothing has surprised me more, and confounded my historical understanding, than the nuclear peace. I simply don't comprehend it. There has never been anything like it in the history of the world. It's been sixty-five years – two generations – and nobody has yet pulled the trigger. I don't know what to make of it. I still find myself bemused when people bother to worry about disasters a few generations down the road. “You really expect that we'll get that far without the Big War, the Last War, breaking out?” I think. What really frightens me about the Peak Oil scenarios is that someone, at some point, will decide to fix things by nuking the bad guys. (I don't know who the bad guys will be, but whenever something goes wrong, it's always the bad guys' fault, and you can fix it by pulling out all the stops to punish them. Everybody knows that.)

So I find myself, oddly, less gloomy than most of my thoughtful friends. I'm already confounded. I have no idea what happens next. I don't believe in progress saving the day, and human reason triumphing over prejudice, but I also don't believe in my own power to predict the end. I'm in the position of a man who was given six months to live ten years ago: all bets are off, and all I know is that the leaves are incredibly beautiful in the sunlight, and that a five-year-old holding a new puppy in her arms at Christmas is not happier than I am, holding you.

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