No, a different myth of independence…

I had another weekend of Permaculture Design class recently, and like previous sessions, we went way beyond landscaping and gardening.  One of the highlights from this most recent go-round was a visualization exercise that one of my instructors used to introduce the Appropriate Technology unit.

He had us close our eyes, imagine we were waking up in our homes tomorrow morning.  The bedroom light wouldn’t turn on; the alarm clock was blank, the smart-phone was dead.  In the kitchen, the faucet was dry; the stove wouldn’t light; the furnace was off.  We put on our shoes and coat and walk outside: cars are stopped on the street; other neighbors – some of whom we know, most of whom we don’t – poke their heads out their door.  It’s quiet; too quiet.

Why? Fossil fuels have disappeared.

As he ended the exercise, he asked us: How do you feel?

The class reacted in a wide range of ways – some apprehensive and fearful, some excited, most in between.  The lack of food and food access came up a lot, as it did in my mind – I work at a grocery store, and we schedule deliveries every day.  We’re encouraged to order only what we need in our sections for one day, which means we have the smallest backstocks possible.  If those trucks stop running, we’d be out of pretty much everything within 48 hours.  Most other grocers and restaurants work the same way.

So that got me thinking, as did the image of neighbors poking their heads out their doors.  I realized I don’t know most of my neighbors (in fact the only one I know happens to be a coworker), and then I realized how rare that his.  Not rare in contemporary America – not at all – but rare historically and culturally.  See we pretend we’re independent, and we idolize individuality and independence, but we’re not the norm.  We’re probably actually the most ‘independent’ society (and yes, that is an oxymoron) in the history of the world.

I put ‘independent’ in ‘quotes’ there because we’re not really independent.  We’re individualistic, but our individualism depends on a whole hell of a lot.  To have, for example, a little suburban or exurban privacy, we depend on our cars, a convoluted global food system, tax breaks, digital technology, cheap water and energy, and so forth… and all of those things depend on readily available fossil fuel.  We’re not really independent; we’re just dependent on oil instead of each other.

Which isn’t really a good idea.  The oil is going to run out, or at least run low, soon – and before it runs out, we’ll have to start using a lot less of it if we want to keep from fucking up the climate a lot.  And then what?  We’ll have to own up to our interdependence quickly, under stress.  So we might as well start now, while we can have a modicum of control and design going into it.

What does that look like?  There’s a joke in some permaculture circles that every question gets answered, ‘it depends.’ Well, so does this one – it depends on where you live, who your neighbors are, which relationships exist and which need to but aren’t.  But here’s a framework to think about it in, a ‘declaration of interdependence‘ from the David Suzuki Foundation that provides some hope and some context.  After that, I suppose it’s up to us.