OF THE ELDERLY
Telling the truth in your golden years
Some time back I interviewed the Richard Heinberg, author
Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial
was among the first to the first draw public attention to
“peak oil,“ the point at which we’ve used up half the
world’s petroleum reserves, and what’s left becomes
progressively more difficult and expensive to extract. I
walked away shaking my head over Heinberg’s dark vision of
energy scarcity and expanding resource wars. I was
blindsided, not for the first time, by a suspicion that
things are worse than even I thought.
Heinberg told me the political and business world refused
to face peak oil head on, and that when it came to insiders
within the oil industry, the only ones willing to speak on
record were retired petroleum geologists. These were the
guys who had gone out and actually measured what’s where.
They no longer had to worry about losing their jobs for
publicly stating the bare facts.
Recently, another group of seniors, all retired US
generals, called for the resignation of US defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Whether it’s the scientific community, the military elite,
or some other esteemed association of silverback males,
it’s no accident that it’s that many indictments of the
status quo originate with the elderly. If you’re in your
golden years, why not toot your horn or blow the whistle,
when there’s no chance of professional reprisals? In terms
of life purpose, it beats battling aphids in the garden, or
reminiscing over the high school yearbook with a glass of
Another retiree who’s letting it all hang out is James
Lovelock, a British chemist and former inventor for NASA.
Lovelock, now in his late eighties, famously cribbed the
name of ancient Greek goddess, Gaia, to describe the
self-regulating properties of planet Earth. Lovelock is now
convinced that we’re toast — literally and figuratively. We
have simply damaged the earth’s ecosystem too much for
civilization to survive in its current form. In an article
in The Independent, he predicts that by the end of the
Twenty First century "billions of us will die and the few
breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic
where the climate remains tolerable."
I sometimes wonder if the elderly, faced with an
abbreviated calendar, are predisposed to project their
diminished expectations onto the external world. In other
words, If it wasn’t resource wars or ecological breakdown,
these aging authorities would be complaining about the
weather, lower back pain, or goddam young people. Then I
consider the other possibility. When we’re younger, we have
a greater stake in believing the world will continue as it
is at least for as long we do. The elderly, for obvious
reasons, don’t have as great a stake in ignoring evidence
that’s less sunny.
This brings us to author Kurt Vonnegut, the author of the
fiction masterpiece Slaughterhouse
Five. There is
no American writer living today with a greater ability to
cut through cant, hypocrisy and public relations, with sly
humour and a kind of gentle grace. Having lived through the
firebombing of Dresden as an American POW, Vonnegut has
always been something of a Cassandra. In a recent interview
with CBC Radio, the 83-year-old novelist stated his belief
that the human race has blown it. We have failed in our
central purpose on this planet, he says, which is not about
getting and spending, or wheeling and dealing, but “farting
around.” (A chainsmoker since his twenties, he fantasizes
about suing tobacco companies for their failure to kill
him, in violation of the promise printed on cigarette
packs.) Host Anna Maria Tremonti sounded somewhat aghast at
Vonnegut’s black humour and ready foreclosure on Homo sap.
In an interview in this month’s Rolling
the writer elaborated further. “ Evolution is a mistake.
Humans are a mistake. We’ve destroyed our planet over
transportation-whoopee.” Vonnegut believes our species is
going out with a big, stupid party, a fossil fool parade
led by SUVs and Hummers. He appears to be glad he won’t be
around as the oil and the aquifers dry up, the ice caps
melt, and the thermostat goes nuts. It’s the same vision
suggested by Heinberg and predicted by Lovelock — but with
a sardonic wit attached.
I’d like to believe these aging authors of fiction and
nonfiction are working from information that is partial or
incomplete, and that the light at the end of the tunnel
isn’t a train. But I can’t deny their authority as
commentators, or the weight of the scientific data they
draw from. And given the state of the planet, we have every
reason to suspect the other aging authorities — the
secretive circles of old, rich white guys who are still
active messing things up — don’t have a Plan B. And if they
do, we probably don’t want to know about it.