Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Peak Oil, The Disposable Society and Exchanging Skills

I was speaking to a friend a few weeks ago about wanting to start up a local group to trade off skills -- the kinds of practical abilities these last few generations have more or less lost, thanks to plentiful and cheap energy having enabled (and accelerated) our consumerism. We're a disposable society, and I mean that in every sense of the expression. On one hand, long after we wipe ourselves out, life on this planet will keep on going on. On the other hand, we're also disposable in the sense that cheap oil has allowed us to evolve into wasteful creatures, to the point where we no longer even know where the hell to put all of our garbage.

A friend of mine frequently points out how our city is constantly littered with disposable Tim Horton's coffee cups, for instance. We leave our homes in the morning, spend minutes idling at a drive-through for a cup of coffee in a paper cup with a plastic top, which inevitably ends up on the ground or in a garbage can. For someone with a mean caffeine habit, investing in a travel mug and brewing a pot at home in the morning would pay for itself in a month. You can even buy a container of Tim Horton's coffee to make yourself (I say this in response to some Tim's addicts who insist that they like the specific taste of their coffee). What's the fascination with having something to throw away?

The ridiculousness of it all struck me yesterday as I popped into the local supermarket to discover a new entry in the ''cheap plastics 'r' us'' book of wastefulness. In the produce section, I discovered small clear plastic containers, each holding smaller plastic bags with what looked like prewashed and cut fruit. For instance, one baggie contained 3-4 grapes in a smaller baggie, and then a couple of orange segments in a second baggie. Fruit -- something sold loose and with its own skin, wrapped in plastic baggies inside bigger plastic baggies inside a plastic container, undoubtedly carried home in a plastic bag. I don't get it. It's obviously not about convenience since I could peel an orange faster than it would take me to cut open all of that plastic.

When I was a kid, I remember reading old Little House on the Prairie books with wonder at the lengthy descriptions of how food was grown or gathered, and preserved. Things were dried, or salted, or pickled in those Tupperware-free days. I grew up in a home where pies were made from scratch -- from strawberries we picked ourselves, with a family that engaged in the annual fiddlehead picking ritual so popular in the Maritimes and Maine. Once a year, my mother and some of my older cousins would head out to a relative's farm or large garden and load up pillowcases with string beans and then bring them home, where she and my grandmother would spend an afternoon sorting through them and snapping off their ends to prepare them for canning.

Even with that, though, I still remember leaving home for my first year of university and not even knowing how to do anything but open a can or follow the simple instructions on the side of a box. I made Kraft Dinner and ate Mr. Noodles. I had frozen pizza and Campbell's Soup. I jumped into consumerism head-first because I could. It wasn't until years later, when I became a vegetarian and became mindful of the foods I ate, that I actually learned to cook whole foods; it wasn't until I had my first garden that I learned how to preserve herbs and vegetables. These were skills I should have and could have learned from my mother and grandmother, but at the time, there was no sense of a need for them to be passed on to me. After all, a strawberry pie could be bought frozen at the supermarket, where canned or frozen string beans were also plentiful.

So oil's running out. Cheap plastic and cheap energy are running out. Consumerism is convenient for us for now, but at the price of leaving us dependent on cheap plastic and cheap energy instead of learning hands on how to prepare and preserve things ourselves. And it's not just about food. Which brings me back to the original idea I mentioned in this post. Since consumerism has led to a breakdown in the traditional passing on of skills that enable a certain amount of self-sufficiency (and that certainly lead to a less disposable lifestyle), it seems to me that the best way to go about remedying this is to find others who have some sort of expertise in this or that area (composting, knitting, bicycle repair, foraging, wine making -- heck, even darning socks) and to trade off these skills with each other in some sort of informal but organized manner. Anyone in my area interested?

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