Let Us Please Not Make it Worse   18 comments

It happens often. A large job waits for me, and for a moment it seems almost impossible. Or, if not impossible, at least quite daunting and far more than I want to tackle. It might be planning and planting the garden, or clearing a fence line overgrown with blackberry, or simply completing some new task I’m unfamiliar with. In that moment, the doubts creep in. It feels like too much. It feels too hard. It’s overwhelming. I’m not of the personality that tends to thrive on these challenges; faced with such tasks, I often want to go sit on a sunny patio with a good beer or curl up inside with a good book. I am a creature of comfort. I can’t deny this.

Sometimes I do this. I ignore the job in front of me, the unwanted but necessary work. When I do this, I’m almost always poorer for it. The temporary comfort of ignoring the necessity gives way eventually to the consequences of an important job undone. Turning your back on reality does not make it go away. It only adds to the ferocity of its eventual return.

How many ways this is applicable. I have two jobs—not at all hard—that I’ve been avoiding today. One is the writing of a post for this blog. The other is going over to my previous place of residence and dealing with the piles of recyclables that I need to sort and take to the local recycling center. Neither of these tasks has yet to be completed. Outside, it has been raining throughout the day, often heavy. And so I’ve found myself inside, drinking coffee, reading a report on the shale bubble, reading a post on The Automatic Earth about building out renewables, conversing with my roommates, avoiding the nagging reminder in the back of my mind that there are jobs to be done. This is not a good response to my reality, to my present, to my future. It’s a small failure—not helpful, but not disastrous, either.

Yet there’s no reason not to tackle the jobs. The blog post can be written—it’s just that no idea is grabbing me by the throat, demanding my attention. I have plenty of ideas, though, that have been waiting for months to be written. Nothing is stopping me but my own small avoidance. And the recycling, as well, is not such a big deal, but it does need to be done. Others are waiting for me to complete this task. It’s another small failure, this time at a community level. It doesn’t help.

— ∞ —

Last night, John Michael Greer argued that the shale bubble is on the verge of popping, and that it could mean another round of harsh economic realities for us in the near future. He wrote of a bubble-and-bust economic trend to be carried out over the foreseeable future and all the complications of dealing with our current and future circumstances that will entail. We face a troubled present, and more troubled future, consisting of constricting energy resources, a dysfunctional economy, and the hard realities of contraction. There are a number of responses we could take—none of which would solve the problem, granted, but could help soften the predicament—but due to our inability, as a culture and society, to face up to the truth of what’s taking place, we will not be able to marshal the action and resources to carry out those responses. As such, our likely response as a society to the future is one in which we “evolve through crisis, not through proactive change,” as Dennis Meadows noted in an interview in Der Spiegel. We are not planning a sane response to our future; we can’t even agree on the foundations of a sane response. Counting on centralized action at this point would be disastrous.

Luckily, we’re not at the mercy of centralized action. Every one of us holds the ability to change our lives. This ability is not complete or unencumbered, granted, but we can challenge societal norms, opt out from excess modes of living, and begin the hard and necessary work of scaling back our lives to a level more appropriate for a contracting economy and deindustrializing world. We can engage the household economy. We can learn to garden, to raise and care for livestock, to cook from scratch. We can take up coppicing, experiment with biochar, build rocket stoves, teach ourselves the ecological principles that more and more will assert themselves in the day-to-day reality of our lives. We can expose ourselves to the outside climate, scale back our need for climate control, learn to live with heat and cold in ways that don’t involve a thermostat and piped in fuel. We can remember what it is to be human, to live in communities, to build democracies, and we can get down to the hard work of implementing again those realities and complex human interactions. We can insulate our homes, put on sweaters, sit in the shade of a tree on a hot summer day. We can bike to work, walk to the store, take the train rather than the plane, ride the bus, either across town or across the state, or just stay home. We can begin to cut out our wasteful habits and tendencies—unnecessary entertainments and distractions, that cable bill, that Netflix account, high speed internet, video games, Blu-Rays. We can turn off the television. We can replace vacuous pop culture with meaningful work, useful hobbies, sustaining activities. We can, in other words, get out of the game.

That’s a small list of the things we can do, today or tomorrow or early next week—but soon, damn it. It’s not time to just think about these changes, philosophize about them, talk in abstract ways about them. It’s time to do them. Every day is important. Every day puts us closer to the next crisis and a form of evolution that is chaotic and messy and painful. Every day spent changing our lives in response to the crisis before it happens is another step toward a more humane response to the challenges of the future, hopefully a bit less chaotic and messy and painful. And every action we take to help soften our own personal blow, we put ourselves in a better position to help our community—which in a lovely feedback loop, may very well help to further soften the personal blow of the hard times here now, and the worse ones coming.

— ∞ —

But this means work. It’s inevitable. It’s unavoidable, no matter how good we are at avoiding it. Thinking about the popping of the shale gas bubble, perhaps another recession like in 2008, or perhaps something worse, can be frightening and paralyzing. It seems so big—it is big. It’s challenging. It’s overwhelming. And the more dependent we are on the overarching system, the more vulnerable we are, the more challenging and hopeless it might seem. But allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by that challenge, that sense of hopelessness, that fear—it’s pointless. It doesn’t help us. Avoiding it does not eliminate the predicament. Busying ourselves with other, unproductive tasks does not better our future.

It’s a cliche, but it’s the getting to work that usually is the hardest. It’s that initial engagement that can so easily stop us. But once we begin the process, it can snowball from there. Not always, of course—sometimes there are challenges, missteps, moments of depression and despair that temporarily halt our progress. But again, we have to press forward and continue on, to not allow ourselves to lose out to that sense of impossibility.

The antidote to fear is good work. Never forget that. It’s one of the most important truths we have right now.

— ∞ —

When you get into the thick of the work, when it begins to click, the world starts to fall into place. Everything hums. It’s exhilarating. The progress begins to build upon itself, each step forward suddenly seeming a bit longer and a bit more sure, a bit more emphatic. The final accomplishment begins to come into view, and in view of that accomplishment, many more seem possible. This is another positive feedback loop, and it’s one of the most important ones for the troubled times ahead.

Today I can grow a garden, raise livestock, make bread and butter and yogurt and homemade sodas, cook from scratch, suffer the cold, weather the heat, and thrive on physical work. Not too many years ago, I either couldn’t or cared not to do all those things. But those skills and that knowledge did not come at once. It was a long procession—a procession that continues to this day. It was filled with leaps forward and fallings back. It was filled with triumph, with exhilaration, and with uncountable moments in which it all felt impossible, in which I questioned every decision I had made. It involved depression and doubt. And it involved resolve and certainty.

But all my successes ultimately came about through work. It came about through engagement, through tentative first steps, through a process of discovery. And all of it involved initial doubts and fears, often times overwhelming. As I said, I am a creature of comfort. Some people thrive off new challenges and the opportunity to master unknown skills. I don’t, at least not instinctively. That’s not my psychology. I hate to appear incompetent. I hate to admit I don’t know what I’m doing. I like comfort and routine and ease. But despite all these traits, I’ve managed to dramatically change my life and learn an array of new skills over the preceding five years—and every year, I learn a vast amount more. Granted, there’s still a vast amount I don’t know—I’m still incredibly ignorant about so much—but I’m in a far more resilient place than I was just a few years ago.

I worry about what might happen with the shale gas bubble, or with some other sort of dramatic economic trouble. I suspect another shock to the system is coming soon, perhaps later this year or next. It seems a bit too quiet and our economic foundation is far too rickety and rotten. My worry, though, is more about my family and friends, and my community, than myself. I think I’m a bit insulated. I know I can live on a small amount of money—relatively speaking—and could cut back even more if necessary. I suspect my work is mostly safe from economic shocks, at least up to a point. (I could be wrong about that, of course. The economy is a tricky, complex, interrelated system.) I have skills. I have potential fall back plans. Nothing is guaranteed, but I don’t expect the next economic shocks to wipe me out.

That small sense of security is, again, the result of the work I’ve done over recent years. It’s a result not of centralized action, but of personal action. It’s a result of the ways in which I’ve changed my life, changed my expectations, built my skills, built my resiliency, and engaged my community. It’s about me getting down to the business of saving my own ass—with an irreplaceable number of assists from my local community, of course!—and accepting the trade offs that that entails. I don’t mean this to sound self-congratulatory; my sense of security could be a complete illusion, or the next troubles could be far worse than I expect. I only mean to advocate for a course of action that I suspect could benefit every person who reads this.

— ∞ —

The future is one of crises. I write that with complete confidence. Our ways of living, in the developed world, are brittle at best. They are temporary. They are perched upon the ricketiest of foundations, and they are going to come down bit by bit, in a slow overall crumble punctuated by the occasional dramatic collapse.

But our lives are not entirely at the mercy of the broader societal crises that are an inevitable piece of our future. We can take action now to insulate ourselves a bit against those crises. We can choose to evolve proactively at the individual and community level. In doing so, we can make the future a tiny bit better. We can have our own small impact.

It’s not a panacea. It’s not a grand fix. It’s just our small piece, our little bit of action. It’s those first steps in the face of an intractable and overwhelming predicament. But it’s necessary, because there’s nothing else to do, unless we’re content to lay down and die. We could turn our back on the future and pretend its challenges aren’t real, but that would be a terrible mistake. It already promises a great enough ferocity; let us please not make it worse. Begin the work today. Start tackling those problems. If you haven’t taken the first steps, take them today. If you have, but you’ve faltered, get back to work. And if you’re cruising right along, continue that hard and necessary process.

I expect no centralized solutions. But every day, even in the midst of the crises, the individual solutions and responses are there for the taking, in every person’s own life. That’s the hope. That’s the antidote.

Take it.


18 responses to “Let Us Please Not Make it Worse

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  1. Reblogged this on There Are So Many Things Wrong With This and commented:
    Well, yes. Please let’s not make it worse. You go, Joel

  2. I’m far from done with reading your gorgeous work, Joel. I can only thank you for being you.

    Your writing is excellent. I am so sorry that you don’t get the attention, and community you deserve.

    • Thank you! I really appreciate that. As for the attention, I probably get right about what I deserve. It is growing, though, as I consistently blog. The challenge is not taking a few months off. We’ll see how this summer goes—gardening and farming comes first, and last year got a little overwhelming for me.

  3. I am so happy for you, that you are in the happy place you are in. I wish I could join you. Perhaps in a little while. For now though, I am expecting a centralized Final Solution for many of our predicaments to come very, very soon.

    • Hi John,

      I’m taking your response as being sarcastic and annoyed. If I’m reading that wrong, then the following probably isn’t relevant and I apologize.

      Perhaps I sounded too self-congratulatory or self-satisfied. I hope that’s not how this post is coming across, but it may be the case. In all honesty, I do feel happy in a certain way. I’ve done a lot in the last five or so years. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve changed a lot—and it hasn’t always been easy. I considered taking a different course multiple times but I ultimately stayed with my more long-term goals. Thinking about another bubble bursting and realizing that I feel fairly insulated against it (again, a feeling that could be entirely wrong—I can’t predict the future) is somewhat satisfying, in a very personal way. I have steady work, live significantly beneath my current means, and last year paid off thousands of dollars in credit card debt. I am in a better place financially than I ever have been. I’m proud of that, I admit it.

      And feeling happy about where I’m at is a nice change of pace from, say, Monday, when I felt awful—restless, alienated from society, questioning of the scope of my life. I have those days, too.

      That doesn’t mean I’m happy about the thought of future hard times, just that I’m happy that I’m in a decent position to weather them. That also doesn’t mean that I think I have all the solutions—good god, far from it. I just feel good about the place I’ve managed to get myself in the last some odd years.

      A lot of people, from my experiences, do expect centralized solutions. I used to. I no longer do. I may also be wrong about them not being forthcoming, but I sure as hell don’t see any indications that I am. Granted, much of my audience probably doesn’t expect centralized solutions, so perhaps my preaching is being misdirected. But really I just see this post as a rhetorical summary of the same arguments I’ve been making here for a long time. A little summary and refocus. If it came off as more obnoxious than helpful, then I apologize. Not the intent. I suppose I’ll see how others react.

      • LOL. no, no sarcasm, I was being completely honest. No need to apologize for the post, I’m sorry my comment came off that way. I truly hope you’re right. I’d much rather you bring me up than I bring you down. But TPTB have made it an open secret that they see the problem as excess population, and I expect to see them seriously trying to “solve” that problem come spring. I don’t have any proof, it’s more like knowing your spouse is getting ready to divorce you when they stop trying to hide their affairs.

        • Aha. I totally misread you. Sorry for that, but I’m glad the post didn’t upset you. I can’t say I foresee the same thing happening as you do, though I have little doubt TPTB will continue to muddle up effective responses to the future, both incidentally and on purpose. Hopefully it won’t go beyond that, as you’re thinking. As always, we’ll have to wait and see.

          • Yep, it shouldn’t be long now before we find out if the world is run by evil geniuses or greedy fools. The problems for the evil genius PTB with regard to extermination are how to extract as much as they can before starting and how to kill off the worthless or troublesome while still maintaining those useful to TPTB. I believe after 2013 their “effective and selective” options are going to start rapidly diminishing, somewhat like France in 1788. And I think we are about to see rapidly diminishing returns for extracting wealth, aka blood from a stone. So if they don’t make their move soon, they probably never really will, because that would mean they are just greedy fools.

            • I still suspect greedy fools. If these guys are evil geniuses, they’re damn good at hiding the genius part (not so much the evil part, perhaps.) And indeed, there’s not going to be much wealth left to extract, the farther along the decline we get.

  4. I think we were separated at birth. Or, you’re my long lost grandson. Or, something. 🙂 . I’ll just say that I’ve been doing Google searches, recently for “lack of motivation.”

    I’m an old guy. Sometimes I think it’s all too much and I should just move into subsidized housing and spend the rest of my days reading and watching dvds. But, something keeps me from considering that, very seriously. I guess it’s that my new life living out in the boonies has far more pluses, than minuses.

    I lay in bed at night and what helps is I think of all the blackberries I cleared last year. Four to six feet deep or more. There was the patch in the side yard over the septic. Gone. The patch that was overwhelming the back deck. Gone. I want to put corn, pumpkins and sunflowers there. After a heavy mulching. Already have the spoiled straw to put over it. The patch of blackberries that was west of the lean-to. It was so big an enormous that there was a huge stump in there that I couldn’t even see. Gone. I want a strawberry patch, there.
    There was another enormous patch at the east end of the sheds. It used to be an herb garden. The blackberries are gone. Blackberries gone from around the old horse coral. That’s where I want the bulk of my garden and the chickens to go.

    Last year I learned to process chickens, learned to can and vaccinated my own cat. Taking stock of last year helps put me in a good frame of mind to tackle this years challenges. If I stop and take stock, I know I’m up to it. But I also know that the fight against lethargy is a constant battle. I it helps, you’re not the Lone Ranger.

    • Hey Lew,

      Sounds like we understand each other! It’s always good to hear that other people struggle with the same challenges. I’ll have to agree with Heather below that you seem to be doing more that’s right by avoiding a life of just books and DVDs (though I’ll much more forgive you for the books, not to mention the occasional DVD) and getting outside a bit, too. I think the corollary for me is imagining living in Portland again, with not just the books and DVDs, but the regular going out and drinking good beer and bullshitting with friends. All of which has its good points, but it’s not the makings of a full and authentic life. I like it out here in the boonies, too—like you, I find more pluses than minuses.

      Keep thinking of those blackberries and all the good work of clearing them out. That’s the sort of stuff we need to be doing—just the continual small tasks of living well and making the world better, bit by tiny bit. Get those strawberries, pumpkins, sunflowers, corn and the rest of the garden in this year. It’ll keep you damn busy and give you a heck of a lot of good eating to boot.

      Maybe you’ll send me a picture of the chicken palace once you get it built. I bet those chickens are gonna love it.

  5. Bravo, Joel! Best post EVER! I plan on printing it out and saving it. I totally agree with everything you said, especially about being resilient. I know I try to be. I couldn’t have gotten this far on my tiny little income if I wasn’t. I think one of the things you mentioned that is hard for a lot of middle class Americans is what you had to say about comfort. Being able to handle the cold and the heat. And how good work is the antidote to fear. My life over the past few months has been very stressful, but knowing how to work to fulfill my own needs relieves a great deal of the stress brought about by things beyond my control.
    And, Lew, you sound like an old guy, kind of like me, except I’m an old gal! I think you’re doing the right thing, in my humble opinion (not that it’s my business), but I think it’s much more exciting to make things and grow things instead of just reading or watching dvds!
    Thanks again, Joel, for a wonderful post.
    Blessings and much Aloha,

    Heather Caparoso
    • Thank you, Heather! I think the whole comfort thing is an important part of the equation. We’re so used to controlling our environments and making the world to what we want it to be rather than learning to deal with it as it is . . . that just doesn’t work in a world of constrained energy and a failing economy. I’ll be writing more about that soon.

      Sorry the last few months have been stressful. Hopefully the next couple are less so! Either way, good work well done always seems to make things at least a bit better.

  6. Iike that last paragraph and have included a similar type qoute:

    The Great events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual.

    This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals.

    In our most private and most subjective lives we are not only the passive witnesses of our age, and it’s sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch.

    C. G. Jung 1934


    • Thanks for the Jung quote. He keeps popping up in my reading the last few weeks. Mentions in a couple books by John Michael Greer that I read, some works of Joseph Campbell I’ve been reading, and now your reference. It seems it’s time for me to track down some of his writing and check him out in greater depth.

  7. Hi Joel. Didn’t Tolkien write, “It’s the job that’s not started as takes the longest to finish”? (the words of Master Samwise Gamgee)

    I really enjoyed the structure of this post. It was very well written. You started off in despair at the tasks before you, considered them for a while, then considered the implications and consequences of not doing them and then steeled yourself, and finally resigned yourself to the inevitability of undertaking the tasks at hand.

    It is a very good metaphor and mirror for society too. I tend to work first and play later and have done so from a very young age. It drives my friends crazy. It’s good when it is interesting work like the bees because then they’re interested and are busting to help. Shovelling manure though doesn’t seem to get too many people interested though! hehe! My dad left when I was really young – I don’t even remember him – but because we were poor I always kept at paying jobs. There were more jobs for kids back in the 80’s though: paper rounds; chemist rounds; retail etc. Sometimes I used to do three rounds a day and I was up at 5am in the frosty morning and out on my push bike for hours and then I’d do another round after school.

    I wonder too about the urgency in the post about the impending shale bubble implosion?

    Every day for the next week is over 32 Celsius (90 Fahrenheit) here, but at least the nights are cooler and the sun is slightly lower in the sky. I truly hope that this season is a one off, but I know deep down that this is where the climate is going. At least there is more water in the tanks now 40,000L (about 10,500 gallons). The rain when it turns up here is heavier and the farm here is alternating between hot and tropical and hot and arid leaning heavily towards the arid end of things. Not easy, but that is where I live… You can see why they developed Permaculture Down Under. Bill Mollison’s farm is in a very similar climate to here (in Northern Tasmania) and David Holmgren is about 40km away from here in Daylesford which is a bit drier than here – although he has town water which is a real bonus!

    Thanks for the description of all the great beer out your way. I am very envious! Glad to hear that the books were a bit overly clean in describing their technique. They’ve been making the stuff for millennia so you wouldn’t think that it would be that complex…


    • Hi Chris,

      A wise Tolkien quote! I’ll be honest, I don’t think I had the best work ethic growing up. I didn’t have lots of chores or required work within the household, so it was mostly about going to school and then relaxing afterward. I think it’s much better when kids have a role in the household economy, both to learn the value of work and to better see their own ability to contribute. I’m not saying I was terrible, just that I didn’t have that work habit instilled in my early on as it seems you did. No doubt it would have been quite a bit different if I’d grown up on a farm! Though, come to think of it, my dad did often grow a garden in the backyard and I did help with that.

      Anyway, I think I’ve mentioned it here on the blog before, but I do my best work when it’s at least partly a responsibility to someone else. I’m very reliable when it comes to my jobs—I show up, I do the work, I put in an honest day. I won’t claim to be the fastest or hardest worker, but I’m steady and reliable, I get the job done, and I usually do it well. But when I’m at my own mercy, it’s much easier for me to slough off the responsibility and revert to something easier. Sometimes I cut myself a bit too much slack—and then, ironically, sometimes make up for it by likely being a bit too hard on myself psychologically. I’ll certainly never claim to not have my issues.

      If I have to get something done, though, I usually just up and get it done. It’s those gray areas—those slightly more optional tasks—where I get into trouble.

      I’m sure part of why I harp on the need for good work is simply a reflection of my own sense of shortcomings. Then again, I see those shortcomings reflected back by a lot of people in society. I see so many people who are looking for a shortcut or a magic cure all, some excuse not to get down to the business of the hard work at hand. It’s not just a self-defeating path, but a dangerous one for society as a whole. It’s why I worry about it.

      I hope as well that this season doesn’t become the norm for you, but climate change doesn’t bode well for us. We’ve made a mess of the world. The last two springs here have been terribly cold and wet, just a real bear to get gardens going in. We had a mild winter, though, and I’m hoping that this spring will be better. We’ll see. I’m starting to get that itch to get into the dirt and I’m hoping I might be able to start doing some bed prep this weekend, which is supposed to be sunny. I came up with a vague and ambitious gardening plan the other day—we’ll see what happens with it. I won’t talk details for now, but if it comes to fruition, I’ll probably give a bit of a rundown of it here on the blog eventually.

      And yes, insulation. I do think I’m doing very valuable things with my life right now. I also am starting to get a bit more into the community aspect of it. I went to my second Grange meeting this evening and on Monday attended a board meeting of a local non profit dedicated to building the local food system. I’m going to apply to become a member of the board. I think this will add an interesting dimension to my life out here and involvement in the community. Hopefully it’s a good one.

      Stay well down there. I wish you yet more rain and overflowing water tanks.

  8. Oh yeah. As to insulation. That’s something that you install before you need it. What you are learning and the networks that you are making is invaluable and is perfect insulation. It took me years to learn that it is not what you earn, but what you do with what you earn. I can cut my costs further too if needed if and when my meager income drops. Back in 1991 I was thrown on the economic scrap heap during the severe recession here as a very young worker and I was determined never to get fooled again. Chris

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