Monday, March 31, 2008


What will the Delai Lama say when the oil runs out? Will his words feed my children? Will they appease the starving marauders who threaten to take what little is left to go around? Is universal love a prescription for dealing with universal scarcity? When survival dictates that we must first defend our homesteads, then our community, then our nation from desperate outsiders too numerous to accommodate? When the oil runs out will Jesus appear to distribute loaves and fish to the hungry billions and save us from stark choices?
When the oil runs out, food cannot be sufficiently produced or transported. There are no “green” alternatives. Five billion people will die in less than twenty years, one third of America’s 300 million people and more than one third of Canada’s. The idea that we could feed ourselves is a quixotic notion that doesn’t bear up to scrutiny. We’ve already covered 20% of Fraser Valley farm soil with buildings and lost a similar proportion of arable land nationally to urban growth, which will only continue unchecked with current immigration rates. When you remove fertilizers, chemicals and fuel-run machinery with a power-down, the required land per person for food production skyrockets.
A study done of London, Ontario, a growing city of 460,000 surrounded by farm country, revealed that it simply could not be fed without oil. It would need to use 200,000 animals and conscript half the labour of the city, posing logistical problems for their commute or the commute of their school children. Storage for the food could not be found and if it was, it could not be kept from freezing in the winter time. And this is for a city that might have enough arable land in proximity. Other Canadian cities would not have that advantage.
“Relocalization” in Canada is a pipe-dream. Without oil, we’re cooked. Those Californian vegetables and fruits will not get here-- the Americans will not have a surplus to export and if they did it certainly wouldn’t be delivered to us by electric cars. The last hurdle would be the Quadra ferry. Without fuel it is not operational and virtually everything we need could not be acquired in meaningful quantities. In three days or less the shelves of both of our stores would be empty, and those with hunting rifles would make Walcan release everything they had at gunpoint. Needless to say, the vegetables grown on Quadra would not suffice to feed 2700 people. The Community Lunch would be faced with thirty times its normal patrons but with no food to give them---it would be cancelled. The Churches would open their arms but not their empty refrigerators. It is then that we would find out about our much vaunted community spirit.
History tells us how people behave when they go hungry. The better angels of our nature often do not prevail over the desperate instinct to survive. Even in normal times, social psychologists report that more than 80% of us fantasize about murdering people we don’t like. Growing your own food is one thing. Stopping other people from taking it is another. One day we will regret our restrictive gun laws.
During the Second World War, Vancouverites living on rations made the long 40 mile car trip up a narrow road to beg for butter and eggs from farmers like my parents whose neighbours typically carried rifles to fend them off. One day my folks came back from a shopping trip to Mission and found ladders up against all the trees in their orchard with the fruit stripped off them. And these thieves were only motivated by deprivation, not starvation. By contrast, in Leningrad during the 900 day siege people were dying of starvation in the tens of thousands every month. Leningraders not only dug up the freshly buried corpses of starving people to eat them, some even resorted to cannibalism. When you are only getting 10% of your caloric needs, it’s amazing what moral precepts go by the wayside. Morality, you see, is not much use when you are dead.
So what then, of love and compassion? In my moral universe these hypocritical Christian pieties offer no help in an environment of too many people and too few resources. “Love” must co-habit with cold calculation. Empathy begins at home, and extends outward with prudence and caution. As the airplane sign instructs, if you experience a loss in cabin pressure, first secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.
The kind of compassion needed in the coming collapse, be it resource depletion or ecological in nature, is the kind shown by a ship’s captain who orders that a few crewmen be jettisoned from an over-loaded lifeboat to save the rest from drowning. It’s the kind of compassion that will deny medical care to me in those times because folks my age cannot be allowed to siphon off scarce resources from the young who must survive if any portion of humanity is to survive. And it is the compassion required to save our nation and its environment from the tens of millions who will look to board our lifeboat and sink it.
Sometimes compassion requires me to shoot a beloved horse with a broken leg. Or that a surgeon amputate the leg of a beautiful young woman with flesh-eating disease. Or that I assist in the suicide of my brother who suffered the indescribable nausea and pain of terminal cancer, in defiance of Christian morality.
True compassion is not the compassion of Christianity or Buddhism or of any the major religions. It is not the compassion which would dispense development aid to African nations so that their populations explode and misery and starvation returns at an even greater level. True compassion often means saying no.
True compassion comes with a hard edge.

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