Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
By Cam Mather
My friend Steven Moore asked me to speak to several of his sustainability classes at Queen’s University last week. He asked for my “Thriving During Challenging Times” talk. When we were discussing what I should cover in my talk, he told me that his students were already aware of the converging challenges of peak oil, climate change, the economic collapse, crumbling infrastructure, an aging population, blah blah blah. Wow, fun class! Sign me up! I asked him if he provides Prozac for the students as they leave his classroom each week.
So I edited down my usual thriving workshop since I assumed that most of the students in these classes don’t own houses and so aren’t likely to put in a geothermal heating and cooling system, and woodstove for backup etc.
As I suspected, the students were kind of dazed and confused after my talk and in the morning class there weren’t a lot of questions or comments. When I suggested that the students avoid flying and own some precious metals and switch to a plant-based diet I expected to get a lot of push back. But there wasn’t too much. I guess they are old hands at this stuff.
I asked some questions to get a handle on where they’re coming from. I asked, “How many of you think you’re going to have a higher standard of living than your parents?” When I began asking this question to high school students in the wealthy suburbs of Toronto 20 years ago, most of the students raised their hands. Fewer of these university students indicated as much, so I think perhaps reality is setting in. When I asked how they would all be getting home for the upcoming holidays, about a third indicated that they will be taking a bus, a third will take a train, and the last third will be flying. So I asked “How many of you have been on a plane in the last year?” and just about all of them raised their hands.
I am not passing judgment. They are just functioning within the reality of the economic framework in which they live. Flying is cheap. Bizarrely cheap. So cheap that no airline seems to be able to make money over the long haul as the recent bankruptcy of American Airlines shows. It looks like they couldn’t handle the high costs of fuel, so they filed for Chapter 11. Heaven forbid they’d pass higher fuel costs on to their customers. That seems a foreign concept to them, not in their business model. But the writing is on the wall. Air travel is about to become the domain of the rich. A decade ago a barrel of oil cost $20. Today it’s $100. So it’s 5 times more expensive. And the more I learn about the potential for a steep drop off in the production of crude oil in the next few years, along with the increasing competition from developing economies for what’s left, air travel is about to change radically.
So one of my suggestions to these students is to “NOT FLY.” For the students from Norway and Australia and other countries in the class, this is not practical in the short term. In the long term I’m suggesting it’s a reality. For the planet and for their pocket book.
Air travel is really quite miraculous. When you see a jumbo jet landing at St. Maarten where the runway is just past the beach, the mind boggles. Keeping something so big, so heavy, airborne at all, boggles the mind.
A fully loaded 747 weighs 975,000 pounds, almost a million pounds. Think of the energy to lift a million pounds into the air. It’s like getting a pretty large building into the air, and keeping it there. Some of the video footage showing jets taking off gives you an appreciation for the awesome power available in a barrel of oil.
And apparently at St. Maarten the pilots have to get those jets up pretty high and pretty fast, cause there’s that mountain, with the houses, just past the runway.
So I see both sides of the flying/non-flying debate. I’ve decided not to fly. It has too deleterious an effect on the planet. But for a younger person who hasn’t had a chance to have my experiences, I fully respect their decision to fly. I’ve done my exploring, I’ve found my little piece of paradise, and I’m sticking here. I like to make suggestions that they might never have heard from anyone. So many of the suggestions about “reducing your carbon footprint/treading more lightly on the earth” still promote the idea that “Little changes can make a big difference.” I think a lot of that is crap. We need to make big changes and we need to make them quickly. Getting some of the million pound jets out of the skies is a good first step.
I got an interesting reaction from the students when I told them that I try to leave my house as little as possible. Michelle goes to town (13 kilometers) a couple of times a week to ship books, but I try and stay put. On my way home from my talks in Kingston on Friday I picked up a video in town. I needed to return it on Saturday so I rode the electric bike in to town. It was pretty cold and windy but the only thing I burned to get there was the energy from the granola that I had eaten for breakfast. That and some solar and wind power that charged the battery on my electric bike. The electric bike works great for small trips but I’m not going to be riding/driving it to Toronto any time soon.
There are often stretches of two weeks at a time when I don’t leave Sunflower Farm and there have been a number of times when it’s been a month. Some of the university students seemed to find this quite bizarre. And if I read their faces correctly, they found it horrifying. And I fully understand that. They are social creatures. Urban creatures. They see and interact with lots of people, every day. But I have lost my desire to “go” anywhere. I just want to “stay” put. And when you look at world oil reserves and production, eventually, we’ll all be staying put a lot more often.
After I delivered my talks about a radically altered future, I like to point out that I’m still one of the happiest people in the room. I’m not sure how, but even with a book shelf full of books on peak oil and climate change and the economic collapse, I’ve found some way to stay not only sane, but pretty darn happy. At this point in my PowerPoint presentation I like to share photos of myself dressed up as “Super Solar Man” in a local parade. I’ve been known to ride my solar-powered bike, dress up as a solar-powered Christmas Tree or drag my solar-powered bubble machine along the parade route. The moral of the story? I don’t take myself too seriously.
This past Sunday was the day for the Tamworth Santa Claus Parade. The “Grassroots Growers,” a group of local gardening enthusiasts that I belong to, invited their members to participate in the parade dressed as their favorite vegetable. I went as blueberries. High-bush blueberries. Solar-powered high-bush blueberries (I had battery operated lights looped around me using batteries charged by my solar panels). I was a cluster of locally grown, organic, solar-powered high-bush blueberries. We had breakfast with some friends and she asked me if I was going to dress up as a vegetable. I said, “No, I’m a fruit.” Needless to say, I got a laugh for that line.
The parade staging area was located in the windiest part of Tamworth. Trying to fasten 20 blue balloons to my clothing was quite a challenge. There were several “wardrobe malfunctions” which had me running across the field chasing balloons. Note to self: this was a stupid design for a windy day. I figure as a fall back I can use this get up and join one of those Chippendale dance teams. I could sell darts to the women in the audience! OK, that’s a stupid idea and an image no human being should have to experience. I guess I should have rated this blog “inappropriate for anyone of any age!”
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