Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Resolutions for a Post-Peak New Year

To my mind, the traditional habit of New Year’s resolutions has much to recommend it. Though it’s proverbial that most such resolutions are already on the endangered species list a week after the new year begins, and end up in the fossil record somewhere between the brontosaurs and last election’s campaign promises by the time February comes within sight, the idea of entering a new year with new aspirations is a good one. As 2007 approaches, worldwide conventional oil production remains noticeably below its 2005 peak, and the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and elsewhere promises at least its share of oil crises and economic shocks in the months and years to come.

Thus a set of New Year’s resolutions for a world on the brink of the deindustrial age seems timely just now. There’s plenty of material on the web right now about the mechanics of peak oil, and a fair amount on what we can expect once industrial civilization starts tobogganing down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak, but too many of the suggestions for what can be done about it either remain fixated on survivalist fantasies of apocalypse or go chasing after equally unlikely dreams of large-scale political reform. Mick Winter’s excellent new book Peak Oil Prep (and the accompanying website takes a large step in the right direction. Still, I have my own list of suggested resolutions.

For some people the following ideas will be impractical, and for almost everyone they will be at least a little inconvenient. All of them, however, will be an inescapable part of the reality most Americans will have to live with in the future – and quite possibly the very near future, at that. The sooner people concerned with peak oil and the rest of the predicament of industrial society make changes like these in their own lives, the better able they will be to surf the waves of industrial decline and help other people make the transition toward sustainability.

1. Replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents

If you haven’t done this already you may not be paying enough attention. Compact fluorescent bulbs last around eight times as long as ordinary light bulbs, and produce the same amount of light for a quarter the electricity. The less wattage you use, the less of a burden you put on the electrical grid and the biosphere. Go shopping for compact fluorescent bulbs before the new year, and notice the impact on your electric bill.

2. Retrofit your home for energy conservation

Most of the lessons of the 70s energy crises were forgotten long before the recent housing bubble took off, and nearly all recent residential construction leaks heat the way a sieve leaks water – not a good thing in a world of rising energy costs. Fortunately this can be fixed easily with a very modest investment. Weatherstripping doors and windows, putting foam gaskets behind light switch and electrical outlet plates, and the like can be done even by apartment dwellers, and more extensive projects such as putting an extra layer of roll insulation in the attic to prevent heat loss is within the range of most homeowners and house renters. As energy prices rise, heat will once again be too precious to waste. Over the coming year, learn what you can do to conserve energy at home, and do it; your bank balance will thank you, and so will the planet.

3. Cut back on your gasoline consumption

American dependence on cars is as much emotional and psychological as it is practical, and few are willing to take the step we’re all going to have to take sooner or later, and actually get rid of their cars. Everyone can cut down on the amount of gas they use, however. Whether you do it by trading in a gas-guzzler for a more modest and more efficient car, cutting back on casual driving, walking or bicycling more, or switching to carpooling or public transit for your commute, each gallon of gas you don’t use helps stretch out the downside of the Hubbert curve and buys time for a transition to sustainability. Keep track of how much gas you use each month, and try to make the total go down each month for the next year.

4. Plant an organic vegetable garden

Today’s agricultural practices depend on fossil fuels to power equipment, transport produce, and provide fertilizers and pesticides. This makes organic food gardening one of the skills that will be needed most desperately as fossil fuels run short in the decades to come. Pick up a good book on organic gardening – John Jeavons’ How To Grow More Vegetables is among the best – and find a patch of soil for your garden, and you’re ready to go. Apartment dwellers can often use window boxes or half-barrels full of dirt on a patio or balcony as a micro-garden, arrange to borrow a corner of a houseowning friend’s yard, or get a patch in a community garden. It doesn’t matter if you can only grow a few pounds of vegetables over the course of the season – the important thing is getting past the steepest part of the learning curve long before you need to rely on your own produce. Plan your garden in the winter months, get the tools and seed you’ll need, and be ready to plant by the time spring comes.

5. Compost your food waste

Vegetable waste from your kitchen should go back to the soil, not into a landfill. Composting is a simple technology that does this quickly, cleanly and efficiently. Read a good book on composting – Stu Campbell’s Let It Rot! is one of the classics – and go to work. If you have a yard, get a compost bin set up in one corner and use it for your kitchen and yard waste. If you don’t, talk to a friend who gardens – if she composts, she’ll likely be grateful for your compostable waste. If you own your home and your local code permits (most do), consider replacing your flush toilet with a composting toilet. In the deindustrial age, survival will depend on understanding nutrient cycles and working with them, not against them. You might as well get started now. Get your compost bin started as soon as the weather is warm enough.

6. Take up a handicraft

The end of the age of cheap energy means, among other things, that economies based on centralized mass production are on their way out. In the future, just as in the past, most goods and services will have to be produced by local craftspeople or the end users themselves. The coming of peak oil requires the recovery of the old handicrafts people once used to preserve food, make clothes, fashion tools, and produce a hundred other things now shipped worldwide from Third World sweatshops. All these crafts require practice to master, so the sooner you learn them, the better off you’ll be. Choose one and begin practicing it during the coming year.

7. Adopt an “obsolete” technology

In recent decades, the social changes we are pleased to call “progress” have replaced many older, sustainable technologies with newer ones that use energy more extravagantly, wear out or break down more frequently, and depend on an ever widening network of other machines. These changes will come undone in a big way as the end of cheap energy makes most of the 20th century’s technological changes unsustainable. As energy supplies peak and begin to decline, a window of opportunity exists for some of the older technologies to be brought back into use before they are forgotten and have to be laboriously reinvented decades or centuries in the future. Many of them work just as well as their more modern replacements—a slide rule can crunch numbers as effectively as a pocket calculator, for example, and a hand-cranked beater will beat eggs as well as an electric one. Choose a technology from your grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ time and make it part of your daily life during the coming year.

8. Take charge of your own health care

Health care in the industrial nations has become a massive industry even more dependent on extravagant energy consumption and international supply chains than most. In America, at least, it has already become so costly that close to a majority of Americans can no longer afford even routine care, and it will likely be among the first to break down as energy supplies contract and the global economy fractures. Older, less energy-dependent healing methods, most of them part of today’s alternative healing movement, offer one of the few ways of responding to this. Many of them can be learned and practiced, at least in a basic form, without a great deal of training. Over the coming year, choose a method of providing your own health care, learn its strengths and limitations, and use it to maintain your health and treat your minor illnesses.

9. Help build your local community

The Petroleum Age saw the twilight of community across the industrial world, and the birth of a mass society of isolated individuals tied to the larger society only by economic interactions. The results have not been good, and will likely get much worse as the Petroleum Age ends and the economic glue of mass society comes apart. Many of the old institutions of community still exist, and new networks have begun to take shape in many communities. More than anything else, they need people willing to invest a modest amount of time in them. Choose one of them, get involved, and stay active in it through the coming year.

10. Explore your spirituality

At the core of the consumer society, and the fossil fuel-powered industrial system that spawned it, lies the conviction that the highest goals of human existence can be found in sheer material consumption. This notion took shape in opposition to an equally dysfunctional belief that despised the material world and grounded all human hopes in another world on the far side of death. The bitter sibling rivalry between these twin ideologies has hidden from many people the fact that many other options exist. In the twilight of the industrial age, the faith in progress that buoyed the consumer economy faces extinction, and the hopes once confided to it deserve better homes. In spirituality as well as ecology, diversity is a positive good, and the Druid tradition I practice and represent as an archdruid rejects the claim that every human being can, much less should, approach the great mysteries of existence in the same way. Whatever your own vision of spirituality may be, then, explore it more deeply over the coming year, and study its teachings in the context of the coming deindustrial age. You may find that, seen in that light, those teachings make an uncommon amount of sense.

With that, I wish all the readers of this blog a safe and sustainable new year!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Nawida 2150: Q&A

I had some additional questions for Joe, the viewpoint character of last week’s Archdruid Report post. Despite his failing health, he welcomed the chance for an interview. We met at the village hall, walked down to the beach just south of it, and sat on a convenient piece of weathered concrete just above the high water line.

Q: I want to thank you for making the time to talk with me, Joe. I hope you’re not in too much pain.

A: Oh, it comes and goes. It’s not too bad today.

Q: Does the village healer have anything to help with pain?

A: Not for something like this. Sharon makes a willow bark tea that does a good job on cramps and headaches, and poppy resin can be had from merchants now and again, but it costs half the earth—more than a schoolteacher can afford, certainly.

Q: If you don’t mind my asking, how much money do you make?

A: Money? Very little; there’s not much of that in circulation these days. I have one student whose family pays me in money—they’re in trade, so it’s convenient for them. The rest pay in barter or rice chits—those are markers good for a fraction of next year’s rice crop. Most local trade uses one or the other. Still, you can’t buy foreign goods with them, and even if I sold everything I got I couldn’t keep myself in poppy resin for more than a little while. No, I found my remedy in a couple of the Old Time books in my library. You might have heard of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.

Q: The Stoic philosophers?

A: Good! If you were one of my students you’d get a treat. Yes, the old Stoics have a lot to offer these days. Any of my students who stay long enough to handle Old Time English prose end up reading them.

Q: How many students do you have?

A: Right now, fifteen. It’s up and down depending on the season, and of course school’s closed for planting and harvest, but it’s usually between ten and twenty. That’s not bad in a village with fewer than a hundred children of school age, you know.

Q: What about the other children? Can’t their parents afford to send them to school?

A: Partly that; partly, some people don’t see the point of schooling their children; and partly, some children just aren’t suited to book learning. They’ll be perfectly good farmers and crafters even if they can’t read a word of Old Time English, and the doors illiteracy closes to them probably wouldn’t open for them anyway. To my mind, as long as there are always at least a few who have the means, the desire, and the talent to learn, I have no reason to complain. It helps that the church encourages learning so much, of course. Any girl who wants to enter the priestesshood knows right away that she has to learn to read—they won’t even consider taking a postulant who can’t read the sacred books.

Q: What do you think of the Gaian church? I thought I heard a little ambivalence on your part in the Nawida essay.

A: Oh, I think the world of it. (laughs) Seriously, it’s a very good thing. The church does a huge amount of good in the world and not much evil. Of course that might change; I’ve read enough history to know what religions can do if they get tangled up in politics. Still, people need a place to hang their hopes, and that usually means some religion or other. In Old Time they tried to put their hopes on sheer material extravagance instead, but they ran out of resources long before they ran out of cravings to satisfy. That’s the advantage religion has, you know: salvation is a renewable resource. Since the church’s notion of salvation is all mixed up with ecological restoration, they’ve got an advantages most of the Old Time faiths didn’t.

Q: But you don’t actually believe in the Gaian teachings.

A: I can’t see any reason to think that a planetary biosphere has any reason to concern itself with what happens to any particular life form running around on its skin, even if the life form has two legs and a head chockfull of grandiose ideas about its own importance. Now I could be as wrong as wrong can be, but that’s the thing I can’t get my head around.

Q: What does the church think of that?

A: Oh, we’ve had our ups and downs. During the drought years I pretty much kept my mouth shut; those were hard times, and faith in Mama Gaia was just about the only thing that kept people going. Once the seas rose and the rains came, times got much easier, and that makes for tolerance. Anna—she was the priestess before the one we have now—she and I used to sit up late nights and argue about theology over a bottle of whiskey. A fine, well-read person. If the church turns out to be right and I wake up in Mama Gaia’s bosom after this old body finally shuts down, Anna’s one I’ll look for. She was the one who figured out that my Darwin book was something the church didn’t have.

Q: Which book was that?

A: The Voyage of the Beagle. That was one of the books in the old set of Harvard Classics I bought in ’38. Since Darwin’s one of the prophets...

Q: Wait a moment. Charles Darwin is a Gaian prophet?

A: That’s what the church says. It’s in the litany: ‘And for Darwin, who taught the holy truth that humanity is part of nature and bound by its laws—for him and his teaching we give thanks to the Earth Mother.’ Mind you, I sometimes wonder what old Darwin himself would think of that. At any rate, the church has big libraries in Denva and a few other places, and Darwin’s other books are in those, but as far as anyone knows mine was the only copy of The Voyage of the Beagle anywhere. That got me a great deal of tolerance from then on. It probably didn’t hurt that most of my best students went into the church themselves.

Q: How do you feel about that?

A: Oh, I have my ambivalent moments. When I was younger I had wild dreams about reviving technology and rebuilding a secular society, but it’s clear to me now that nothing like that is going to happen anytime soon. As I said, people need a place to hang their hopes, and after what happened to Old Time, there aren’t a lot of people willing to try the same thing again—even if that was possible, and I don’t think it is. I’ve read that when the last big civilization went under, the Old Believers did then what the church is doing now: preserving knowledge, trying to blunt the sharp edges of the times, and—well, look at that! You don’t see one of those every day.

Q: That ship?

A: A two-master up from Antarctica. It’s been close to a year since the last one came.

Q: Antarctica? Do people live there?

A: Quite a few of them. There were settlers in West Antarctica early in the last century; once the western ice sheet melted, it was opened for settlement. They suffered terribly when the big eastern ice sheet collapsed in 2119, of course, but that left the whole continent free of ice. The Antarcticans are great sailors, and trade with anybody who has something they don’t. That means almost everything except wheat, beef, gold, and timber, from what I hear. It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s travelers’ tales these days.

Q: Do you get much news from abroad?

A: Only when merchants or travelers come through, and then only what they remember and want to talk about. Even on this continent, it takes time for news to spread. We didn’t hear about the war between China and Mexico until it was half over, for example, and it went on for close to five years.

Q: Has war been a problem here?

A: Not recently. We had a brisk little border war with the Dakota Republic a few years ago over some territory up near the Missouri headwaters, but most often the Six Republics get along. Yes, that’s most of the old United States east of the Rockies and north of the sea. Generally things seem to have settled down since my childhood.

Q: As a final question, what kind of future do you hope your students will have?

A: Whatever kind they decide to make for themselves. It’s a bigger world than it was in Old Time, when you could step in a plane here and be on the other side of the ocean in a few hours. Now it takes weeks even to get to Denva, and that’s not far away by Old Time standards. A bigger world and not so many people means there’s room for many different futures. I wish I could see some of them, just as I’d probably be glad to be spared some of them. But that’s the way of things. I imagine the same thing was true in Old Time; there were good choices and bad ones. It’s just that the bad ones had so much impact. Nothing we do these days will have half so much, but I hope we can do better in our own small way.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Nawida 2150

This is my third and (for now) last exploration of a deindustrial future using the tools of narrative fiction. Fifty more years have passed since "Solstice 2100." Massive climate change, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, and the final stages of catabolic collapse have transformed the setting almost beyond recognition. In the aftermath of these changes, new cultural forms are evolving to replace the last fragments of industrial civilization.


“Mes Joe? She kee.”

The old man looked up from his book, saw the boy’s smiling brown face at the door. “Da Manda Gaia?”

“Ayah, en da gran house. Habby Nawida!” He grinned and scampered off. Joe closed the book and rose slowly to his feet, wincing at the familiar pain, as the habits of half a lifetime picked at the boy’s words. Nawida, that was from old Spanish “Navidad.” Ironic that the name remained, when the faith it came from was no more than a memory now. Half the words in Alengo were like that, tenanted with the ghosts of old meanings like some haunted building in the old ruins.

He got his cane and a bundle wrapped in cloth, looked out the open door to make sure the rain would hold off a little longer. Out past the palms and mango trees, dark clouds billowed against the southern sky. Those promised another round of monsoon within a day or so, but overhead the sky was clear and blue all the way to space. He nodded, left the little thatched house and started down the broad dirt path that passed for the little village’s main street.

Ghosts, he said to himself as a pig trotted across the way, heading off into the rich green of the fields and the jungle beyond them. Alengo itself—that had been “our lingo” back when it was a makeshift pidgin born on the streets of a half-ruined city. Half Spanish, half English, half Mama Gaia knew what, that was the old joke, but the drought years turned it into a language of its own. These days people spoke Alengo all along the coast from Tenisi west to the plains, and only a few old fools like Joe kept English alive so that somebody could still read the old books.

He wondered what old Molly would have thought of that. She’d spent most of his childhood bribing and browbeating him into learning as much as she thought he could, and went to Mama Gaia convinced she hadn’t done enough. He hadn’t expected to step into old Tom Wu’s footsteps as the village schoolteacher, either, but somehow things turned out that way. Ghosts, he said to himself again. It wasn’t just the language that they haunted.

Off to the left a stream that didn’t exist at all in the drought years splashed its way between jagged lumps of concrete and young trees. There stood the grandest and saddest ghost of all, the little brick building they’d raised for the waterwheel-driven generator. What a project that was! Dan the blacksmith, ten years in the earth now, did all the ironwork just for the fun of it, and half a dozen others helped put up the building, craft the waterwheel, and wind the coils. Even the village kids helped, scrounging wire from the old ruins.

They got it working, too, turning out twelve volts DC as steady as you please. That was when reality started whittling away at the dream of bringing back Old Time technology, because they didn’t have a thing they could do with that current. Light bulbs were out of reach—Joe worked out the design for a vacuum pump, but nobody could craft metal to those tolerances any more, never mind trying to find tungsten for filaments or gases for a fluorescent bulb—and though he got an electric motor built and running after a lot more salvaging, everything anyone could think of to do with it could be done just as well or better by skilled hands with simpler tools.

Then someone turned up an Old Time refrigerator with coolant still in the coils. For close on twenty years, that was the generator’s job, keeping one battered refrigerator running so that everyone in the village had cold drinks in hot weather. That refrigerator accomplished one thing more, though, before it finally broke down for good—it taught Joe the difference between a single machine and a viable technology. It hurt to admit it, but without a fossil-fueled industrial system churning out devices for it to run, electricity wasn’t worth much.

When the refrigerator rattled its last, Joe bartered the copper from the wire—worth plenty in trade by then—for books for the school. He’d done well by it, too, and brought home two big dictionaries and a big matched set of books from Old Time called the Harvard Classics, mostly by authors nobody in the village knew at all. His students got plenty of good English prose to wrestle with, and the priestess borrowed and copied out one volume from the set because it was by one of the Gaian saints and nobody else anywhere had a copy. Still, he’d kept one loop of wire from the generator as a keepsake, and left another on Molly’s grave.

A voice broke into this thoughts: “Ey, Mes Joe!” A young man came past him, wearing the plain loincloth most men wore these days. Eddie, Joe remembered after a moment, Eddie sunna Sue—hardly anybody used family names any more, just the simple mother-name with a bit of rounded English in front. “Tu needa han?” Eddie said. Before Joe could say anything, he grinned and repeated his words in English: “Do you need any help?”

That got a ghost of a smile. “No, I’m fine. And glad to see you didn’t forget everything I taught you. How’s Emmie?”

“Doing fine. You know we got a baby on the way? I don’t know if you got anything in your books about keeping a mother safe.”

“Sharon should have everything I have. Still, I’ll take a look.” Sharon was the village healer and midwife, and all three of the medical books she had came out of Joe’s library, but the reassurance couldn’t hurt. Emmie was Eddie’s second wife; the first, Maria, died in childbirth. That happened less often than it used to—Sharon knew about germs and sanitation, and used raw alcohol as an antiseptic no matter how people yelped about how it stung—but it still happened.

“Thanks! I be sure they save you a beer.” Eddie grinned again and trotted down the street.

Joe followed at his own slower pace. The street went a little further and then widened into a plaza of sorts, with the marketplace on one side, the Gaian church on another, and the village hall—the gran house, everyone called it—on a third. Beyond the gran house, the ground tumbled down an uneven slope to the white sand of the beach and the sea reaching south to the horizon. A few crags of concrete rose out of the water here and there, the last traces of neighborhoods that had been just that little bit too low when the seas rose. Every year the waves pounded those a bit lower; they’d be gone soon, like so many of the legacies of Old Time.

Another irony, he thought, that what brought disaster to so many had been the salvation of his village and the six others that huddled in the ruins of the old city. It took the birth of a new sea to break the drought that once had the whole middle of the continent in its grip. Another ghost hovered up there in the dark monsoon clouds—the day the clouds first came rolling up out of the south and dumped rain on the parched ground. He’d been out in the plaza with everyone else, staring up at the clouds, smelling the almost-forgotten scent of rain on the wind, dancing and whooping as the rain came crashing down at last.

There had been some challenging times after that, of course. The dryland corn they grew before then wouldn’t handle so much moisture, and they had to barter for new seed and learn the way rice paddies worked and tropical fruit grew. Too, the monsoons hadn’t been so predictable those first few years as they became later: Mama Gaia testing them, the priestess said, making sure they didn’t get greedy and stupid the way people were in Old Time. Joe wasn’t sure the biosphere had any such thing in mind—by then he’d read enough Old Time books that the simple faith Molly taught him had dissolved into uncertainties—but that time, at least, he kept his mouth shut. People in Old Time had been greedy and stupid, even the old books admitted that, and if it took religion to keep that from happening again, that’s what it took.

He crossed the little plaza, went into the gran house. The solemn part of Nawida was over, the prayers said to Mama Gaia and all the saints, and the bonfire at midnight to mark the kindling of the new year; what remained was feasting and fun. Inside, drums, flutes and fiddles pounded out a dance tune; young women bare to the waist danced and flirted with young men, while their elders sat on the sides of the hall, sipping palm wine and talking; children scampered around underfoot, bare as when they were born. People waved greetings to Joe as he blinked, looked around the big open room, sighted the one he needed to find.

He crossed the room slowly, circling around the outer edge of the dancing, nodding to the people who greeted him. The one he’d come to meet saw him coming, got to her feet: a middle-aged woman, black hair streaked with iron gray, wearing the plain brown robe of the Manda Gaia. Hermandad de Gaia, that had been, and likely still was west along the coast where Alengo gave way to something closer to old Spanish; Fellowship of Gaia was what they said up North where something like English was still spoken. The Manda Gaia was a new thing, at least to the Gaian faith, though Joe knew enough about history to recognize monasticism when he saw it.

“You must be the schoolteacher,” the woman said in flawless English, and held out a hand in the Old Time courtesy. “I’m Juli darra Ellen.”

“Joe sunna Molly.” He took her hand, shook it. “Yes. Thank you for agreeing to come.”

“For three years now we’ve talked of sending someone here to see you.” She motioned him to a seat on the bench along the wall. “Please. You look tired.”

He allowed a smile, tried to keep his face from showing the sudden stab of pain as he sat. “A little. Enough that I should probably come straight to the point.” He held out the cloth-wrapped bundle. “This is a gift of sorts, for the Manda Gaia.”

The cloth opened, revealing a battered book and a narrow black case. She glanced at the spine of the book, then opened the case and pulled out the old slide rule.

“Do you know what it is?” Joe asked her.

“Yes.” Carefully, using two fingers, she moved the middle section back and forth. “I’ve read about them, but I’ve never seen one. Where did you find it?”

“It’s been in my family for around a hundred years.” That was true in Alengo, at least, where “mi famli” meant the people you grew up with, and “mi mama” the woman who took care of you in childhood; like everyone else, he’d long since given up using Old Time terms of relationship. “The book explains how it’s used. I can’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve done some respectably complex math on it.”

“This thing is precious,” she said. “I’ll take it to our mother house in Denva, get it copied by our craftspeople there, and bring it back to you.”

“That won’t be necessary. I don’t think it’ll be possible, either.” He met her gaze. “Cancer of the bowels,” he said then. “Not the way I would have chosen to go, but there it is. It’s been close to three years now, and by the time you get to Denva and back I’ll be settling down comfortably in the earth.”

“Mama Gaia will take you to Her heart.” Seeing his smile: “You don’t believe that.”

“I think the biosphere has better things to worry about than one old man.”

“Well, I won’t argue theology.”

That got another smile. “Pity.” Then: “I have one other thing to ask, though. I hear quite a bit about the Manda Gaia these days. They say you have schools in some places, schools for children. For the last twenty years all my best pupils have gone into the church, and there’s nobody here to replace me. I’d like to see someone from your order take over the school when this thing gets the better of me. I wish I could say that’s a long way off.”

She nodded. “I can send a letter today.”

“Thank you. You’ve made a cynical old man happy, and that’s not a small feat.” ” The dance music paused, and in the momentary hush he fancied he could hear another, deeper stillness gathering not far off. He thought about the generator again, and the concrete crags battered by the waves, and wondered how many more relics of Old Time would be sold for scrap or washed away before the world finished coming back into balance.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Solstice 2100: Q&A

I had some further questions for Molly, the viewpoint character of last week’s Archdruid Report post, and was able to arrange for an interview. We met in the social hall of her church.

Q: Molly, thank you for agreeing to meet me and answer a few questions.

A: Why, you’re welcome. No harm in talking, and it’s not a workday for me.

Q: What do you do for a living?

A: I work for John Hanna’s soapmaking firm. You must have seen the big green house just west of here; that’s John’s, and the soap plant is in back. I started work there twelve years ago, just after the second civil war ended, and I am the senior employee there now.

Q: How many people work there?

A: Aside from John, there are eight of us in the plant, and as many salespeople out in the field. We make most of the soap sold along this part of the Mississippi.

Q: If you don’t mind my asking, how much do you make?

A: Not at all. I earn 300 columbias a week. I don’t know what that would be in old money.

Q: The columbia’s the postwar currency?

A: It is here. I don’t know what they use elsewhere, but the columbia’s good as far west as the edge of the plains and east to the Ohio River. That’s as far as Hanna soap travels. I don’t imagine anyone would turn down good silver, though, no matter what’s stamped on it.

Q: Paper currency isn’t used any more, then?

A: No, not since the old federal government fell. Oh, I imagine most people my age or older have a few old bills as keepsakes – why, Sophie Mendoza has a ten million old-dollar bill from back before the Persian war, Earth Mother bless her, but of course it’s not worth a penny now. I think some of the new governments printed bills back a few years, but nobody would take them. These days, people want money that has more than promises behind it.

Q: So what happened to the federal government? You mentioned there were two civil wars. I’d guess those did it in.

A: That’s right. The first one started in ’54, when Michael Bonney seized power. He was a general fighting rebels in the southwest, and got into some sort of quarrel with the government. They tried to get rid of him, and he got rid of them instead. His people and the Congress party fought it out for four years, and Bonney won. He broke up the states and took apart most of the old government—mind you, it was practically falling apart by itself, so that didn’t take much work. But things stayed quiet from ’59 until Bonney died in ’74. Mostly quiet, that is; he tried to take back Mexico from the Chinese in ’66, and that didn’t work very well. That was when we lost California.

But Bonney died in ’74, as I said. There was trouble right away, uprisings all over—why, there was one in Springfield, not fifty miles from here; a lot of people died there. We had a coalition government of generals for a few years after that, but in ’79 the generals fell to fighting each other, and the country broke apart. The old USA is eight countries now. Nine, counting California, but that’s a Chinese protectorate, not a country of its own.

Q: And the second civil war lasted to 2088?

A: That’s correct. That was a dreadful year—food ran very short, and plague came through. I think something like one in ten people died in that year alone. There were peace negotiations before that, but it took the famine and plague to make anyone get serious about them.

Q: Was that when you stopped being able to get electricity?

A: No, that happened after the first civil war. Mind you, it was scarce and very expensive before then, but you would still see lights in people’s houses here and there. I think it was in ’59 that Bonney had all the solar engines moved to army bases and government factories, and not long after that the little bit of power we got from the dams down in Tennessee got requisitioned too. All the coal was going to the military by then, too, turned into fuel for tanks and planes, and during the Mexican war everything that could be made into fuel was requisitioned and used up. I haven’t seen coal for sale here in twenty years—not that any decent person would use it, mind you. Earth Mother deserves better from us than that.

Q: What do you use for heating, then?

A: Heating? There’s little need for that nowadays. It’s been fifteen years, no, sixteen, since daytime temperatures dropped below 70° in wintertime. Nights get cool now and then, but nothing more than a quilt will take care of. Cooling would be nice in the summertime when it breaks 120°, but that’s past hoping for now—I’m sure people would pay plenty to get one of the old air conditioners running, but nobody knows how they worked, and if somebody figured it out, where would you get the electricity? Mostly we need fuel for cooking, and wood provides that. There are big woodfarms around the edges of town to meet the demand, and of course plenty of people coppice in their yards.

Q: With that much global warming, the sea level must have gone up quite a bit.

A: Well, you don’t hear much news from down south these days, but back before the second civil war we heard that there had been terrible coastal flooding all along the Gulf. They said half of Florida was underwater. I don’t imagine things are any better there now. They used to drill for oil down there, so I’m not the least surprised Earth Mother put the whole coast under water.

Q: You were raised in the Gaian faith?

A: From age nine, yes. I still remember the first time my stepmother took me to the old Gaian church near the apartment where we lived back then. It wasn’t much to look at, a little brick building with a painted sign over the door, and I remember following her up the stairs and thinking I’d have to sit on a bench and listen to somebody talk. But the priestess – that was old Sister Ruth, bless her, who died in the refugee camp back in ’56 – she was so very kind, and let me join the children’s class, where we planted seeds and learned about water cycles. I made two new friends in the class that very day. I must have made life hard for my whole family for the next week, I was so impatient for Wednesday to come around again!

But of course I got older and learned more about the faith, and came to see just how much sense it makes of everything. I can’t imagine living through some of the times I’ve seen thinking it was all just chance, or the whim of some god who doesn’t have to do anything of the kind, like the Old Believers used to say. Once you know that the troubles now are how Earth Mother is healing the harm people did to her in Old Time, and if we help the healing along we can help make a better world for our children and theirs, then the troubles are easier to bear.

Q: Are there any Christians around now?

A: The Old Believers? Oh, certainly, though there aren’t many of them. They keep to themselves for the most part. One Wednesday back in ’89 one of their preachers stood right out in front of this church and started shouting about how we were going to that place they believe in – I don’t remember what they call it.

Q: Hell?

A: Yes, that was it. He said their god made the world for human beings to use. Can you believe it? I happened to hear him say that as I went to church, and I didn’t know whether to laugh because it was so silly, or weep because it was so wicked. He did the same thing the next Wednesday, and the one after that, but then people started shunning the Old Believers. Nobody would do business with them, not even the farmers in the weekly market. That was the last we heard from him, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Q: Did the shunning stop, once he stopped preaching?

A: Of course. The Old Believers can believe what they want, like anyone else, but they have to act like good neighbors if they expect to be treated that way. There are Buddhist, Jewish, and Seven Powers families in town as well, good responsible people, and there has never been the least trouble between their faiths and ours. For that matter, there are a few New Catholics in town, traders and their families who came from the southwest. My stepson Joe has a New Catholic friend at school, a very polite and friendly boy.

Q: I understand Joe is doing well in school. Is that a public school?

A: Earth’s sake, no – there hasn’t been a public school in town for forty years. Tom Wu runs the school in his home. He used to teach in a military school during the Bonney years, and he makes his living as a private schoolteacher now. There are five or six schools like his in town, I would guess. Not everyone can afford to pay to have their children schooled, of course, and some of those who could pay for it don’t see the value in it. But Joe’s a clever child. If he’ll only apply himself, he can learn anything he chooses.

Q: As a final question, what sort of future do you hope for him?

A: I wish him an easier life than I had. But that depends on what Earth Mother sends us, of course. The people back in Old Time did her so much harm, and she needs so much healing, we simply have to accept what comes.