Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

How we live

Long time readers know that I own property in Windham County, Connecticut where I plan to plant a pear orchard. Yesterday, while waiting for the Domicile Deepott to deliver kitchen appliances -- of course they never showed -- I cleared a corner of land to make way for an additional dozen trees or so. Yup, it's back to the land and the simple life and all that, if you happen to possess, as I do, a tractor with a front end loader, a brush cutter equipped with a circular saw blade, a Stihl Farm Boss chain saw for felling and a Poulan Woodshark chain saw for lopping and cleaning up the saplings, a hydraulic log splitter, and a wood chipper, both with Honda engines. To finally prepare the ground, I'll have to pull my tiller through it to rip out the small stumps, roots and rocks.

It was still quite a lot of hard work for me, but think about the Europeans who first planted orchards in Connecticut in the 19th Century. They had to chop out the brush with hand tools, fell the trees and take them apart with axes and hand saws, and plow the ground with a team of oxen. (Major muscle is needed to get a plow through raw forest soil full of tree roots.) Back then, very few men my age could have contributed much to that effort, those few who were lucky enough to be alive.

Food today is as much fossil fuel as it is biomass, not just to operate the equipment, but to build it in the first place, from mining the metal ore to forging and machining and assembling and shipping it; to manufacture synthetic fertilizer; and of course to ship the produce all around the world. Our dilemma is that it takes fossil fuel to produce biofuel, to manufacture wind turbines and solar panels. There's scarcely any net payoff to much of the technology that's being promoted today. The distance from here to a sustainable post-petroleum economy that could evenly come close to supporting the current human population seems nearly impossible to traverse.

After my father died, my sister happened to find a Mitchell's New Atlas of North America, dated 1867, in the back of a cabinet. The map of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island shows a network of major roads, that more or less follow the routes of most of the present Interstate Highway network. I-95, for example, essentially duplicates U.S. Highway 1. Back then, however, the traffic on those roads was horses and horse-drawn conveyances. There were no highway bridges across the Thames or the Connecticut River; travelers on the Post Road took ferries. A journey by road from Boston to New York would have been a substantial undertaking. Most people never traveled farther than the nearest market town. (The New York, Providence and Boston railway opened in 1837.)

Our lives today are so strange, so radically unlike the circumstances under which we evolved, that it is astonishing how easily we seem to function. But it isn't going to last very long. Yet another very different world is coming, but no-one can see its shape, even vaguely.

No comments: