"I'm afraid there's no denyin'
I'm just a dandelion
A fate I don't deserve.
I'd be brave as a blizzard...
If I only had the nerve."
I don't think that conference speakers are supposed to say what I did at the Community Solutions Conference. We're supposed to be inspiring, energizing. Instead, towards the end of my presentation, I admitted that I was afraid. That's not very inspiring, right up there on the disheartening meter with the list of current democratic candidates. Unfortunately, it is also true.
Now I tend to be an optimist by both nature and inclination. I'm not generally fearful or easily made unhappy. I love my life. Despite the fact that my job is to read all the bad news about peak oil, climate change, soil and water depletion, resource wars, environmental toxicity, financial trouble and all the other crap you can imagine, and write about it, I tend not to take it all too seriously. That is, I do, but I also take very seriously the good stuff in my life. Generally speaking, they balance one another out. But not always. Not, perhaps, as much lately as I'd like.
The thing is, I think most people have a choice when they are confronted by a reality like peak oil and climate change - either they develop a thick skin for at least some things, or they deny. We're all aware that denial is the most popular choice, and why not - denial is a very happy place to live, as long as you don't mind the cost. Otherwise, you have to develop enough emotional scales to at least cover up the horror of the thing. For example, confronted with the fact that 40% of the population of Swaziland is starving to death, you have to be able to find something darkly, horribly funny in the appalling realization that the government of Swaziland is still growing Cassava to make biofuels - that is, in the face of starvation, a government has decided to turn the staple food of that nation into gas, or in the larger truth that we're doing that all over the world now, as we drive food prices up and up and up...
I've got a lot of practice laughing rather than weeping, or winding up my computer and typing out my outrage hoping to break through someone else's scales and make them as angry as this stuff makes me, so that maybe, maybe we can do something to stop it. But I'm less practiced at dealing with my own fear. I've been dripping with outrage at the world's injustices pretty much since I was old enough to have a political conscience, sometime in the mid-Reagan years. But I haven't been particularly scared, because my own blood was never in the game. I was always outraged on someone else's behalf, and of course, that's an easy emotion.
I have, as we all know, four little hostages to fortune, and at least the average person's fear of suffering, death and inconvenience (Lest that list seem strange, I'll be blunt - I'm actually really good in a real crisis, but I can be a bitch when I've been put out in some way. Oddly, I've noticed that is is fairly common - we act like jerks when we can afford to, and something better often comes out when we can't - is that perhaps hopeful news?). I'm scared for my kids, and scared for myself. Some of the time I desperately wish this would all just go away and I wouldn't have to think about it anymore. Sometimes I wish denial was an option.
But mostly, I'm glad I know even the bad, hard stuff. Because I honestly have doubt whatsoever that being prepared is better than not being prepared. I'm not even always sure I want more time - part of me does, but part of me believes that we are better off going through our fossil fuel crisis sooner than later - soon enough that we still have money and resources to make some major infrastructure changes, soon enough that we may avoid the worst of catastrophic warming, and that there might be enough oil left for future generations some wind power and vaccinations. And I can't wish it would go away because it is my job to protect my kids, and my desire to protect the next generations in general - I don't want to dump this burden on my sons or on other people's children. I don't think that's the proper work of parents who love their kids.
John Adams once said that he was a soldier so that his son could be a farmer, and his grandson a poet. I'm no soldier, and if this is war (it isn't) it will be won by farmers and perhaps by poets too. But I share in the sentiment. I'm going to do this work, and face this as head on as I possibly can so that my children may someday choose other work. That's what Moms do. Now the thing they don't tell you about parenting when you become a Mom or Dad is this (for those of you without kids I'm going to reveal on of the dirty little secrets, something, if you are thinking about parenthood, you might rather not know) is this: being parent doesn't make you a better person.
That is, when you become a parent, if you are going to be any good at it, a certain amount of selflessness and self-sacrifice is mandatory, but you do not, as some people seem to think, immediately become the sort of person who enjoys self-sacrifice and wants to be selfless. The ugly truth is that you are still the same greedy, lazy, selfish person you were before (ok, maybe you aren't, but I am). If you were the sort of person who would rather read a novel on the couch than answer the question "what does this spell" 78 times in a row, nothing about parenthood, or even love for your kids will transform you magically into the kind of person who finds having your novel interrupted every 2 minutes delightful. I know the world is full of better people than me, but the truth is that a lot of us are still the same ordinarily rotten people we were before we had kids. We just don't have the option of indulging our rottenness. That is, parenthood, for parents who really want to do it right, requires not that you be a good person or that your better nature predominate, but that you suck it up and do the unselfish thing anyway, even when it sucks, even when you don't want to, even when it is damned hard. Some people really are good, unselfish people - and that's great - I envy them. But it actually doesn't matter very much whether you are one of them or not, if you care about your kids. You have to go around pretending to be unselfish most of the time in the parent business.
The same is true about our present situation. This is scary stuff. There's nothing crazy or unreasonable about being scared by what we're facing. We've got bad news, and it is *appropriate* to feel bad about it. There's no reason we have to be fearless here - frankly, the only way I can imagine being fearless is to be stupid. But we do have to be brave - that is, we don't have to feel brave, but like the Cowardly Lion, like the Mom who doesn't really want to get up for the two am feeding, we have act the right way, to pretend as hard as we can that we have, as the song says, the nerve. And the amazing thing about pretending hard is that sometimes - not always, but just sometimes, you become, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, "what you pretend to be."
Which brings me back to fear, and the only antidote to fear I know - good work. I learned in pregnancy, facing labor (all of my labors were very, very, very long) to simply screw up my nerve, accept that the only way out is through, and to go forward. We're in the same situation now - the way out of this current crisis is through it, to go forward from where we are, with what we have and who we are. It isn't required of any of us that we not be afraid, or that we don't spend a lot of time grumpily wishing that someone else would do the work and leave us alone with our book. But it is required that while we curse fate, previous generations, the current administration, G-d and the Federal Reserve, we get to work. What work? Tikkun Olam, if you are a Jew, or even if you find the metaphor compelling - tikkun olam means "the repair of the world." In my faith, that is why we are here - to fix what is broken, repair what is damaged, to improve what can be improved. As the saying goes, it is not required of us that we complete the work, but it is not permitted for us not to try.
Now I do not come from one of those religous faiths where you put aside the lesser emotions like fear and selfishness - in fact, as far as I can tell, the right to whine is a sacrament in Judaism. So I'd hardly be the person to tell anyone "don't be afraid." Instead, I suggest we all be afraid - that isn't pathological, it is appopriate and reasonable. Nor do I suggest any of us fail to whine about it as much as possible - that, after all, is what the internet is for, collective whinging. We might as well take advantage of the technology while we've got it.
But let us whine while we hammer, moan while we cook, sigh in outrage while we write and march and yell and build and fight our fear with good work and the pretense that maybe we'll become better people while we're pretending that we already are. There's too damned much to do to do it any other way. I may be a coward at times (and trust me, I am), but like the Lion of song and story I'd like to think that , "I could show my prowess...be a lion, not a mou-us..." We're going to need lions, or at least busy mice with really loud roars.