Sunday, May 08, 2005

What peak oil will mean to you

In the most immediate sense, end of oil and natural gas is going to mean a return to the hell of coal and nuclear use in your neighborhood. Think about it. When home heating oil and natural gas prices rise to the point that people are struggling to afford them, what do you think will occur? Will they say, "Oh, now we get it. We've been stupid - we'll put on extra sweaters and reinsulate our homes." I wouldn't bet on it. What people will do is go looking for cheap heat sources. With the price of cordwood rising rapidly, and deforestation an equally rapid danger, people will get coal stoves. When electric prices go through the roof, our long aversion to nuclear energy will go away - G-d forbid that we should have to turn the TV off.

Those conversations are starting right now. Our president claims we can build "clean burning" coal plants (no such thing!). People are putting in woodstoves - but the price of cordwood in my rural area is now near 150 dollars per cord - how long before coal becomes the new woodstove? And yes, they are considering new nuclear power plants - lots of them. Coming soon to your area.

If you've never read about what London or New York was like in the days of coal stoves, do it now. The yellow haze, the rising world temperatures, the arsenic and other toxins in your water, the asthma rates...all these can be yours. Remember, the population of even the major cities was a lot smaller then, and their standard of living a lot lower - do you think someone used to setting the heat at 70 is going to make do with one small coal burner for cooking and heating in their new McMansion? BTW, I would strongly recommend against living anywhere that has coal in the ground - unless you want your children to get black lung, your hilltops strip mined and your water so poisonous you can't drink it.

And those nuclear plants are going to be a lovely thing for all of us. Where will the waste live? Next door? Depends, most likely, on how rich you are. But distance won't necessarily prevent those cancers and mutations, the dangers of obsolescence and forgetting - in 500 hundred years, when someone opens up that now decayed plutonium storage... Not to mention the fact that as greenhouse gasses go, nuclear power produces nasties far worse that CO2. Will they build one on a major fault line next to you (the Seabrook nuclear power plant was built on one of the biggest faultlines in the Northeast, and it ain't earthquake proof. I spent much of my teen years futilely protesting that stupidity. Soon, you can do the same!) Check out Helen Caldicott on nuclear power today at Is this enough to get you to dig out those signs and go protest?

Now, realistically, those first plants are going to go in the inner cities and poor rural areas, so that the radiation and the arsenic can continue poisoning the poor who don't have lawyers, the luxury of moving, or the resources to properly protest. No worries there, as long as you don't mind the moral issues (Moral, shmoral - we want our out of season strawberries! A few little kids with cancer are a small price to pay for dryer-fresh laundry.) But how long do you think before you need one in your neighborhood to keep your lifestyle going, keep your house warm, your microwave running and (if we get really desperate we can distill gas from coal, a nasty, toxic process that makes nuclear power look friendly) your SUV running on time.

Dammit, people, the only thing anyone can do here is refuse. To yell so loud, and tell the truth so clearly, and be so angry and outraged that we have to find another solution. Anyone who ever fathered or mothered a child, anyone who wants their future to go past the next few generations has a stake in this. Yes, you can spare the time to write a letter, stage a protest, talk to your neighbors *before* the coal plant comes.

But I've seen no evidence that we're willing to defer immediate pleasure and comfort to spare our children a lifetime of drought and starvation (read the current series on climate change in _The New Yorker_ if you'd like a hideous picture of the US in 75 years), of early cancers and impure water. I wish I had a solution, other than giving up the lifestyle we so adore. But I don't, and I don't think there is one. Nor do I think we have the common sense to do it. So coming soon, probably next to your playground, a "clean burning" coal plant, 10,000 coal stoves spewing emissions, and your friendly neighborhood nuclear power plant, complete with blinky, the three eyed fish.


Friday, May 06, 2005

The material sum of one's life

I've done this job now twice, in my own grandmother's house, and for Eric's grandparents. Sorting through the material objects that lend fixity to one's place on earth is both depressing and oddly engaging. I find, in their home, a reflection of little neuroses that had passed unnoticed, like Grandma's habit of secreting tissues in odd places not intended for them, and also tremendous skill at the art of thrift and creative homemaking. Those latter are definitely underrated arts - I tend to underrate them myself. But my appreciation is growing.

My paternal grandmother and great aunt, shaped by the depression and by being a little nuts, were packrats. They saved every margarine tub, every scrap of cloth, every rubber band and bit of usable scrap paper. Grandma did the same, but she had less space, and a better penchant for organization. I have learned thrift from them, but perhaps not organization as well as I might have. I try to imagine (too horrible to think about) what it would be like for someone sorting through the objects of my life, and it isn't a pretty image. Instead of neatly organized shoeboxes full of used bows and old wrapping paper, you'd find piles and puddles and messes of miscellaneous things unsorted.

I can hear Grandma's exhortations to usefulness (it was only a few months ago we did this together, sorting through Grandpa's clothes and personal items) - "Could you use this?" "Would you wear it?" "Maybe you should save it." "Well, then give it to the synagogue yard sale." I try and do what she would want, although most of the clothing is off to the yard sale - some would fit me, but my taste does not run to polyester and the sort of things women of her age mostly wore. In the case of my great aunt Helen, many of her clothes were so outdated and so hideous that I was able to save them for dress-up play - there's a box in my attic full of fur hats and silver lame shoes that occasionally gets taken out for amusement. Grandma's clothes were more ordinary, and will warm and cover someone else, hopefully someone, who like Grandma, will be pleased with "Good Quality" and "Wash and wear."

The day is most likely coming when cheap goods of plastic stop being cheap, and when we all have less cash to play with. What we have will be treasured, what we need will be made, or cobbled together, done without, or bought at tremendous cost and made to last forever. The Grandmothers in our lives mostly have those skills, and we have lost them. It is a loss, no question, and it will take us more than a few minutes to gain them back. And along with the skills of thrift and making do, the capacity to track, organize, preserve and plan that make up the basis of that unloved profession, homemaking. I can think of no better tribute to either grandmother than to learn them now, learn them well, and pass to my own grandchildren the things they so lovingly preserved.