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Life lessons of the Chihuahua

Out of existential angst arises the question: If doomsday is near, why aren't you ready to dig for turnips?

March 12, 2006|Hal Clifford | HAL CLIFFORD is the executive editor of Orion magazine.

RECENTLY, I opened a magazine called Small Farmer's Journal to find an article headlined "Our Way of Life Will Not Survive Without Draft Animal Power."

Small Farmer's Journal is full of practical information, and a good deal of polemic, by and for farmers who practice their craft essentially as it was done in the 1930s -- or even the 1890s -- and who maintain that the rest of America has left good sense behind and is headed for a cliff. A few years ago, I would have smiled at its cranky earnestness. Now -- as Iraq flirts with civil war, the Greenland ice sheet vanishes and suicide bombers fling themselves at Saudi oil facilities -- I'm not smiling.

For the last 30 years, I have promoted a humble, light-footed approach to the natural world. When it comes to boogeymen, I harbor the usual suspects for an environmental journalist: global warming, pandemics, energy scarcity, mass species extinction.

And I share a dark, private joke with my wife: "Turnips," I'll say, when I get news that suggests the coming collapse of the oil-based economy, a collapse that may send us fleeing into the countryside, where we will dig turnips from the ground with a stick and huddle around fires fueled by the scraps of Home Depot stores.

"Turnips," I thought, when I read "Our Way of Life Will Not Survive Without Draft Animal Power." But it didn't seem funny.

I've written and edited my share of the-sky-is-falling articles, and notwithstanding the Chicken Little tendencies of some environmentalists, I believe that many of today's deepest fears are justified.

And yet I do my work in a nice, air-conditioned or furnace-warmed office. Each morning I drive my daughter 12 miles to school. When I get home at night, the electric lights are blazing. I fetch a cold beer brewed in England or Oregon, chop some air-freight asparagus for dinner. Later I'll check the Morgan Stanley statement that reflects my participation in the oil economy not only as a consumer but as an investor.

In other words, I live a comfortable, conventional life that is at odds with what I know intellectually. A life that I am all but certain could easily be changed by forces beyond my control.

And this is where I begin to feel like a Mexican hairless Chihuahua. These dogs wouldn't last a week in the woods, so they live their lives in tiny sweaters, tucked in the crook of somebody's arm, or scampering around a city apartment and yapping at the Chinese food delivery guy. Their environment is, shall we say, artificial.

And isn't mine too? How long, I wonder, would I last in the woods?

This week, our plumber said that he is so worried about global warming and the end of the oil economy that he's a tough parent to his kids. "If I'm not," he said, "they won't be able to survive." In other words, his kids are going to know where to find the turnips, and how to sharpen a stick, and how to dig them up -- and how to keep people like me at bay.

Oh, I'll be there after the collapse, at least for awhile. I have skills I can bring to the tribe. I can conjugate. And I can write paragraphs! And look, these manuscript pages, they make excellent kindling for the less-flammable Home Depot scraps!

I fear that, to the self-reliant, I will sound like a Chihuahua yapping away in the rising cold.

So why don't I do more about it? Because, as the author Bill McKibben has written, humans evolved to deal with the tiger in front of us, not some more dangerous tiger far away. For me, for most of us, the world we know still appears solid and reliable, as if it will continue this way for 1,000 years. Why change?

Well, I can imagine how civil war in Iraq could spread across the Middle East, oil could go to $200 a barrel and economies built on it could collapse in a few months. Then I remind myself that as long as humans have been able to imagine, we have imagined the "end of the world as we know it." Maybe we'll develop carbon-free coal and safe nukes soon. Maybe it won't matter so much that Lower Manhattan is submerged by the "waves formerly known as the Greenland ice cap." Let's head off to the gym and not worry about it.

Which leaves these questions: Am I crazy to live the way I do? Or is that guy with the horses, glaring out of the pages of Small Farmer's Journal, proselytizing for draft horses, the crazy one? The idea of trading in my laptop for a manure spreader is hard to take seriously. But I wonder: Will I discover too late that I didn't learn how to drive draft horses and plant turnips when I should have?

Which one of us is wrong? And how can I know before I begin yapping like a Chihuahua?

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