Telling the truth in your golden years (2007)

Some time back I interviewed the Richard Heinberg, author of
The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies.“ Heinberg 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 prune juice.

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 Stone magazine, 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.

Geoff Olson