On Adaptation

June 29, 2008 – Discussion about adapting to a new culture and a new way of life, particularly in a future of externally imposed adversity.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

I suppose most people like their routines. I am probably more wed to my routines than most people, not so much because I can’t tolerate change or favor being in a rut, but because over the years I have systematically refined my lifestyle, shedding or minimizing those things I dislike and focusing on and perfecting those things I enjoy. As a result, I thoroughly enjoy my days even though they are mostly the same day after day.

One of my most treasured routines is spending my mornings reading articles online. I used to subscribe to dozens of magazines – good ones. But I could hardly keep up with them and, more importantly, the hundreds of pounds of paper involved every year in the printing of these magazines always struck me as immensely wasteful. When the Internet exploded in the late 1990s it was a godsend. I could read all the stuff I wanted with greater timeliness and virtually no waste and no clutter.

A few days ago, however, my Internet service was down most of the day, and it really made me realize not only how dependent on it I am today, but how fragile it is. The Internet is dependent on electricity, a working telephone system (or cable TV system), a working Internet infrastructure of routers, servers and cables, and of course, a working web site that I wish to visit. If any one of these things is broken – and they are all complex and prone to breaking down – the Internet doesn’t work. The other day it just so happened that my Internet service provider was having some kind of server problem and was unable to assign me an IP address. It was, in other words, one of the worst possible types of failure, totally blocking all my access to the Internet. It was as debilitating as if somebody had cut my telephone line.

Although I immediately felt incredibly isolated and frustrated, I found the experience instructive, a taste of things to come as energy prices climb and economies flounder. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to keep all the complex components on which the Internet depends working flawlessly. And the Internet is itself but a microcosm of the rest of our existence, with vital systems such as food provision and energy distribution being equally complex. Electricity to our homes will become increasingly expensive and unreliable. (I just noticed on my electric bill this month that electricity is 3% higher per kWh than last month; that’s over 36% annualized!) Water systems will suffer increasingly frequent breakdowns and lengthier repair times. Natural gas prices will soar and gas may even be unavailable at times. Internet service providers will have smaller (and probably less competent) staffs and take longer to effect repairs. Motor fuel prices will continue to rise and shortages may become routine.

Life as we’ve known it is going to be increasingly difficult to sustain, meaning we’re going to have to adapt to the new reality.

Welcome To The Future, Just Like The Past

For a while now, and especially since my involuntary Internet embargo, I’ve been envisioning ways of living without dependence on modern conveniences. I don’t believe that in the future everything is going to come to a halt, that we’re going to be abruptly cast back to the dark ages. I think we’re going to experience an unrelenting, protracted, grinding decay in our standard of living, as measured by our dependence on modern conveniences such as motor fuel, electricity and the Internet. These conveniences will continue to be available in the future, just not as reliably as in the past. By degrees the deteriorating reliability of these conveniences will creep up on us, to the point that they may eventually become so unreliable that it will be a “special treat” when they are working properly! Imagine people hurrying home to take advantage of functioning electricity or to take their car to the gas station before it runs out of its fresh but meager supply of motor fuel.

Before these difficulties are imposed on us, we might be well served to identify ways of living without dependence on these conveniences. Perhaps because I live in a town and a house that date from the nineteenth century, I keep asking myself how people lived in the mid-nineteenth century, before our dependence on electricity and oil arose, envisioning that ancient way of life as at least an intermediate term model for the future.

Remember, people then had little to no electricity, no dependence on oil, no refrigeration, no cars, no motorized farm implements, no pesticides, and yet life was pretty good. We can live like that again if necessary, and in fact, the admirable Amish are proof of that today.

City Boy Goes Country

I grew up in big cities and spent the most enjoyable years of my life in San Francisco, where I entertained myself by going to theatres, dining in fine restaurants, getting drunk in tawdry bars, and frequently jetting off to other cities, such as Chicago, New York and Paris, France. Even back then I recognized the tenuousness of such a lifestyle, dependent as it was on cheap energy and abundant food. (I also didn’t have a car for most of that time and didn’t even have a driver’s license for several years, and it was great!)

Mississippi River swamp
Mississippi River swamp

Today I live in rural Kentucky and am in the process of adapting to a different way of life, not better or worse, simply different. Instead of going out to fancy restaurants I grow food in my backyard and cook at home, including making homemade bread. Instead of going to theatres I read books, preferably in the afternoons when I can read under the natural light of day. Instead of traveling I haul my kayak (on foot) down to the Mississippi River and spend a few hours in the cool serenity of the water wilderness. And believe me, when one paddles up the channels off the river, surrounded by dense woods, it is wilderness! A person with a poor sense of direction could truly get lost up in there, and there’s no land to light upon while waiting for help, only water and trees. But it is so relaxing to float quietly in the still water, under a cool, shady canopy of trees, hearing only the sounds of fish splashing in the water and bird calls echoing through the trees. After such an outing I come home not fatigued, but refreshed.

Considering Alternative Ways To Live

While floating on the river today I thought to myself that kayaking was an activity I could do even if everything else failed. If someday I have no electricity or running water, at least I can walk down to the river with my kayak and spend some enjoyable hours that way.

While carrying my kayak home today I ran into my neighbor, Kenneth, who offered me some Jalapeño peppers from his garden, which I eagerly accepted since they are a staple for me. I offered him some radishes from my garden in exchange, but he said he didn’t care for them. I didn’t feel bad about accepting his peppers in exchange for nothing because a few months ago I gave him and his wife, Donna, an old but valuable iron gazebo that was in my yard. That gazebo ought to be worth quite a bit of produce. I realized that this, too, was a model for the future: bartering, sharing, give and take, a system of trade involving tangible goods but no money. In addition to giving me tomatoes (last year) and peppers, my neighbor, who has an awe inspiring vegetable garden this year, has given me valuable gardening advice. If I have any questions about how to grow something or when to harvest it I just go ask Kenneth. In return, I have given my computer expertise to help other neighbors sort out their computer problems.

After parting company with my neighbor I planted some seedlings of my own that I had been nurturing in the house. Then I planted some more seeds to get them ready for the garden. (I’m a little behind the curve this year, but I’m still learning how to grow my own food.)

A few weeks ago I unpacked my classical music CDs which had been in boxes for years. It was so delightful to listen to them again that it reminded me how much I want to learn to play the piano. I’ve seen plenty of electronic pianos, some of which sound quite authentic and are not expensive (as little as $500). But then, in light of my thoughts about the future, it occurred to me that maybe I’d better get a real piano, one that doesn’t require electricity to operate. That way, if all else fails, at least I can play music. Unfortunately a real piano is considerably more expensive and much more difficult to move than an electronic one, so I haven’t done anything yet. I may just buy an electronic one with the understanding that in the future I’ll only be able to play it on days when we have electricity. I’ll be one of those people rushing home to take advantage of the electricity!

I’ve also been thinking about taking up painting and sculpture again. It would be a more productive activity than sitting on my butt for hours on end reading articles online. If the Internet does become less and less reliable it might be a blessing, as it would encourage me to engage in these other activities.

I also have pending plans to ride my bicycle twenty miles (each way) to the grocery store and liquor store, not because I have a burning desire to ride so far along a treacherous highway, but to see if it’s practical to shop so far away by bicycle. When I was younger I used to ride twenty miles each way to work, so I know it’s feasible. If bicycling twenty miles to grocery shop, say once a week, is practical then that’s one more adaptation I can make when necessary.

Finally, although during prior eras of personal affluence I never hesitated to spend huge sums of money on new things to replace old or broken things, I now think twice about behaving that way, seeking first to repair or restore things. In the last few months I’ve refurbished two light fixtures and am in the process of refurbishing my ten-plus year old bicycle. Part of my new attitude stems from my greatly reduced (almost nonexistent) income, but it’s also an exercise in mental preparation for the future when it will be too costly to simply replace things, if they are even available for purchase. Ironically, now middle aged I’m returning to the mindset of frugality I harbored as a child, as did my parents, and their parents.

Conclusion

What these little vignettes illustrate is that the future weighs on my mind constantly. Everything I do today is viewed though a lens to the future. Will what I do today be possible tomorrow? If not, what else can I do instead? What will it be like to give up browsing the Internet, using my computer, listening to music, watching movies on DVD, playing video games or driving my car in a carefree fashion? Would I be willing to live in a communal household? Would I be willing to invite someone into my house to live with me? If so, how would we distribute the household duties?

Life involves adapting to changing circumstances; the alternative to adaptation is extinction or death. Sometimes the circumstances change at our behest, and we welcome such change. Sometimes, however, change is imposed on us, and we dread and resist such change. The point of this meandering core dump is that although I love my lifestyle as it is right now, I recognize that it may not be possible to maintain it. I’m considering today how to adapt to future changes before they are imposed on me. At the very least, such mental exercises will spare me from being caught off guard, left bewildered and uncertain how to cope. At best, I will gracefully adapt to a new way of living, scarcely missing a beat because I’ll already be there.

The End