Saturday, December 18, 2010

Adjusting My Own Oxygen Mask

To those who are followers of this blog, I must apologize for not posting very much recently. A number of momentous events have taken place over the last few months, but I've been too busy to pay much notice to them. Yet these events, combined with my own busy-ness, have gotten me thinking about how much attention I personally need to devote to preparing myself and my neighborhood for the times now upon us.

During the last few months, the International Energy Agency confirmed that the world has passed the all-time peak in conventional oil production. (Indeed, the latest edition of the IEA World Energy Outlook put the peak date in 2006 – a statement which confirms the mention of 2006 as peak year according to the German Energy Watch Group's 2007 Oil Report.) This last November, there were mid-term elections in the United States – elections which greatly expanded the power and prerogatives of the rich, yet were a disaster for people interested in prudent preparations for the future and the preservation of the common good. During the last few months, the burgeoning American police state has continued to grow, with “get tough on crime” initiatives being approved in a few more states, leading inevitably to a need to build more prisons sometime in the future. During the last few months, some very well-respected bloggers have suggested that it may be time for decent, thinking folk to get out of the U.S. while they still can and relocate to another country.

Meanwhile, I've been working two jobs: first, as a practicing engineer for a small design firm, and second, as an adjunct engineering instructor. I decided to try holding two jobs because of my experiences last year and early this year with my previous firm, which was hit significantly by our ongoing economic crisis. Those were unsettling times, as I was home a lot and worried about having nothing to fall back on in the event that I was laid off. I decided on teaching as a second occupational path because I believe that a highly valuable talent in the years to come will be the ability to teach complex skills – especially to adults.

When I joined the firm at which I now work, I asked to be employed part-time, in anticipation of teaching during the summer term. I had been working on a reduced schedule at my previous firm as well, and the part-time experience was a bit of an eye-opener. I saw that by being debt-free and working part-time, I was able to devote more energy toward learning skills of self-sufficiency and forging neighborhood connections. This kind of time is a valuable resource, and it seems that it is now also an endangered resource.

I am thinking just now of an interview of Jeff Vail that I recently heard on the C-Realm podcast. In that interview, Jeff described the concept of “surge capacity” as that portion of a total system which is underutilized, and which is therefore available to meet an emergency. As he put it, “...if you have the ability to get by on a fraction of what you are capable of, you're in a lot better situation...” He then envisioned “an ideal, resilient, high surge capacity, domestic economy” consisting of a “husband and wife...both working in the 'traditional economy' 10 hours a week each,” and dividing up the remainder of their time between community-focused organization and production and domestic production. The point is that by limiting their involvement and reliance on the 'traditional', official economy, the members of this ideal household would have time to focus on building other strengths and resources in order to make themselves more resilient.

The catch, of course, is that the dominant, official economy does its best to forbid mere “partial” reliance on it. If you're going to rely on it at all, the only terms on which it permits such reliance are full, unrestrained reliance. (Just as one can't be “only a little bit” addicted to heroin.) So everything that ordinary people need is now becoming more and more expensive, and indebtedness becomes more and more the prevailing lifestyle. Even if one manages to stay out of debt, many employers of degreed professionals are starting to eliminate part-time work from their offerings. Scan Craigslist or, and you will see lots of ads with phrases like “Motivated self-starter needed for a fast-paced environment in a dynamic growth-oriented company. Must be able to prioritize, multitask and manage stress. This is a full-time, 40+ hour/week position. Extensive travel required.”

Being employed under those conditions leaves very little time for things outside of work, such as building a resilient life and community. And that's fine, I suppose; as long as a man thinks he will never need alternative arrangements, he need not fret over the fact that he has no time to build alternatives and safety nets. Right now, business is booming for several of the local design firms in our area, so it would be easy to believe that one could continue to rely on the official economy for a long time to come.

But I've been reading the signs, and to me they continue to say, “Disaster ahead.” I keep seeing articles, blog posts and analyses by very intelligent people who track the fragility and poor prognosis of the official economy, both in the U.S. and globally, as well as the fragility of American society. Allowing myself to become a 40+ hour/week worker bee seems to me like trying to fight for the best deck chair on the Titanic.

I want to keep working part-time, so that I can continue to have time to devote to building personal and neighborhood resilience. Some of the resilience-building I want to do will take a significant amount of time each week. But I am getting squeezed right now by the demands of my job, and I feel like I'm regarded as a bit of an inconvenient oddity for not wanting to work full time.

I don't know yet what I'm going to do about my situation, but I'll keep you all posted as things progress. And over the next few weeks, I will be writing about some personal experiences I have recently had and steps I am taking to build a resilient life.

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