Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Sometimes I find myself making links between seemingly unrelated bits of information in my brain. This could be paranoid schizophrenia, or maybe just the way my brain works. Luckily I don’t hear voices… yet. Here’s my case in point.
As someone who often criticizes activities that I think are harmful to the planet, let me be the first to admit that I like orange juice. And not the frozen, reconstituted kind. The “not from concentrate,” fresh squeezed orange juice, in those non-recyclable paperboard and wax square containers. So it’s an environmental double whammy. It’s not bad enough that the juice has traveled by diesel truck all the way from Florida; I’m filling up the local dump with the packaging while I’m at it. I expect David Suzuki to be parked in my driveway ready to hammer me after reading this.
So when Michelle showed me this video I watched it with great interest. It shows where that orange juice comes from.
While I knew it was bad that the juice had traveled so far, at least those oranges were all picked by hand, right? NOT! I had no idea they now had a machine that shakes the orange trees and collects the oranges as they fall. If you watch this video you get a sense that the Florida orange juice industry has very few employees any more. All you see is machines, and trucks, and automated factories handling and juicing and packing the oranges. It’s horrifying. No wonder the unemployment rate is so high.
This is all possible because of affordable, and abundant liquid hydrocarbons like gasoline and diesel fuel. We live in an amazing time that we have tamed this oil “man-servant” and it does so much of the grunt work for us.
Then I read a Maclean’s magazine article that described Dutch women as being the happiest on the planet, with three quarters of them choosing to work part-time. Maybe the men are miserable earning a greater percentage of their household income, but women in Holland seem happy with the deal. Macleans showed a woman, who rides her bike to fetch groceries, has lots of time with her kids and husband, takes art classes and spends “leisurely” afternoons drinking coffee with friends. Woo hoo! Sign me up! Sounds awesome. Now I’m sure this may not be a perfectly representative example, but I guess the gist is that sometimes people choose quality of life over income.
It reminds me of the Michael Moore documentary “Sicko” where he explores the health care systems of the U.S. and Canada as well as the U.K. and France. In France it’s not enough that they have universal healthcare and a mandatory 6 weeks of paid vacation every year. From the documentary I got the sense that the state looks after you so well that if you are feeling a little overwhelmed, dealing with a new baby for example, the government would send someone over to cook your dinner and wash your clothes. Nice.
As I watched the French lifestyle as portrayed by the movie “Sicko” I kept thinking to myself “this isn’t sustainable.” And low and behold, France is one of the countries now being targeted as having too much government debt from all these programs. And when the French government tries to cut back on some of them, like moving the retirement age from 60 to 62, the country is shut down by strikes and protests because once people have these privileges, they will not give them up willingly.
It was like Dick Cheney famously saying “The American way of life isn’t up for negotiation.” Well Dick, you may be correct. It’s not going to be negotiated away … it’s going to be drained away from an empty gas tank. Our way of life is based on cheap and abundant fossil fuels. And The International Energy Agency (IEA), the people that developed governments use to provide them with data on where we’re at in terms of energy in the world, say we hit peak oil in 2006. And they say we should have started preparing for it a decade ago. The “Hersch Report” by the U.S. Government said that we should have started downshifting our lives and economies TWO decades before peak oil hit. So how’s that going? None of our governments will even admit that Peak Oil exists.
So it looks like we’re all in for a rude awakening and our lives are going to be changed in major ways. People in the developed world are going to have to realize that food, and coffee, has been cheap because of cheap oil. Food is going to get much more expensive and we’re going to have to devote a lot more of income to purchasing it. Energy used in transportation and heating and cooling will also go up in price. Any energy you use will get more expensive. Which is going to probably mean fewer free afternoons spent sipping coffee.
And it’s going to mean that I’ll have to be prepared to drink less orange juice. I know it’s coming. And while it could be pretty depressing, I take the other point of view and figure that I’m going to keep dancing while the music is playing. I savor my orange juice like someone else would savor a bottle of fine wine. It’s quite precious. In fact it’s a miracle that I can even afford such a luxury, living in a cold climate a 24-hour truck ride from the warm moist soils of Florida. So I really do consider myself a lucky man.
This is what I tried to convey in my book “Thriving During Challenging Times.” The future is going to be different, but it doesn’t have to necessarily be worse. I know very few people who wouldn’t mind spending less time in a veal-fattening pen of an office having their life energy sucked out of them by a computer, and more time in a garden growing vegetables to nurture their bodies. Because that time with your hands in the soil, and your face in the sun also nurtures your soul. I just don’t think you can get the same feeling of peace and contentment reading your monthly retirement statement (which is probably going down these days) than from pulling a carrot from your garden, and enjoying its crispy goodness.
So I shall continue to be grateful to live in a time with the miracle of air travel, and personal transportation in cars, and fresh orange juice delivered to the frozen north, and I will cherish the luxuries it provides. And I’m making mental and physical preparations for the time when the energy that provides these luxuries is not so abundant. I’ve got one apple tree laden with apples in the garden this year. I’d better get some more planted. Looks like it’s going to be apple cider for me soon.
Photo of orange juice courtesy of USDA via Wiki Commons.