In responding to a recent blog post, a dear, dear friend and long-time comrade in arms commented “we understand your decision to live for the moment and enjoy the now life.” While there’s a good deal of truth in that perception – after all, one of the reasons we chose life in Costa Rica was to live for the moment and enjoy life more – there are other truths embodied on our decision as well.
Our move to the farm a couple of decades ago wasn’t undertaken lightly or without contemplation. We had just spent a year in the South of France, and we had experienced what it was like to live in a village, where daily life was very localized. People walked, rode bicycles, took buses. It was not unusual to not own or drive a car. While big box type stores existed, they did so alongside municipal marketplaces and weekly farmers markets, which were crowded and exciting. Villages still supported a variety of shops – butchers, bakers, pharmacies, tabacs. Going to the post office or the village market to buy groceries were social events, where people met and talked. Every village had its own wines, cheeses, saucisses sec, and the cuisine was unique to the region, adapted to ingredients available locally. Life in the South of France was very rich, even though financially, the people might not be. We certainly weren’t.
People have lived this kind of village life for centuries. Long before fossil fuels. And this kind of life will still be possible long after fossil fuels are exhausted – provided the climate remains benign.
What struck us immediately upon returning to Seattle was the insanity of life in the United States. We determined to move to a farm in Oregon to try live more simply, more locally, to approximate as closely as possible the kind of experience we found in France. We planted a vineyard, a garden, an orchard, a forest, and raised sheep and ducks. A network of like-minded friends emerged. We felt threats from those who would “develop” the land, destroying it in the process – and we organized to protect the land as best we could. Yet as satisfying as our life and our community were, it remained far from a village. The nearest town was twelve miles away, and was an empty, soulless hulk. Even though we became as self-sufficient within our little community as possible, life without a car was impossible.
And the struggle to protect the land from “development” proved to be but a small skirmish on a much larger front. The real foe was the ideology of growth itself, in all of its manifestations. Economic growth has come to be the be-all and end-all, and not only in the U.S. Increasing GDP has come to be the predominant objective of public policy, and the measure of its success. Virtually nothing else matters.
Over the past decade, we have come to know that economic growth is suicide. The economic growth we have seen since the beginning of the industrial age has been made possible by the exploitation of fossil fuels. The consequence of burning fossil fuels is the poisoning of Earth’s atmosphere, which is resulting in the disruption of Earth’s climate system.
Human-driven fossil fuel emissions have probably already crossed the threshold beyond which positive feedback loops are triggered, the Earth’s climate system spins out of control, and Earth echoes the catastrophic extinction event of a quarter of a billion years ago. There may still be a chance, albeit small, that catastrophic consequences could be avoided if humans were to stop burning fossil fuels immediately. But to state this as a political objective suffices to point out the absurdity of hope. Imagine a political figure today channeling Winston Churchill:
I promise an end to economic growth. Even more, I promise that what we call the economy will shrink, drastically and year after year. The extraction, production, and consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas must be drastically curtailed and then halted. Personal automobiles will be banned. The end of fossil fuels will undoubtedly result extreme and widespread hardship, including starvation and the death of hundreds of millions or even billions of people around the globe. But there is no alternative. I have nothing else to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most unprecedented and grievous kind. We have before us many, many long years of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: survival, survival of the human race. Survival in spite of all terror. However long and hard the road may be, unless we stop burning fossil fuels there is no survival.
Not going to happen. Not until after a cataclysmic event, or series of cataclysmic events, if ever. Churchill’s speech followed the evacuation of Dunkirk and the fall of France, with Britain standing alone in the world, left virtually without an army, facing invasion.
Imagine the U.S. population rallying to such an exhortation. Imagine such a movement sweeping the world. Inconceivable. But nothing less would suffice.
That’s how we came to the personal conclusion that further environmental activism is futile. The cards have been dealt. We find ourselves holding a desperate and dreadful hand – but one has no choice but to play the hand that’s dealt. As in Bridge, it’s pointless to pursue a line of play that offers no chance whatsoever. If you can discern a line that offers a even a miniscule chance of success, you’ve got to take it.
If voluntary action by humans to avoid climate catastrophe are beyond hope, a slim hope of involuntary change remains. Envision the sudden and almost total collapse of industrial civilization: unlikely, but not impossible. What if the decline in availability of cheap fossil fuels, combined with increasing climate disruptions, were to result in widespread geopolitical instability and the breakdown of political and economic systems around the globe? Where might be the best place in the world to ride out such storms?
Of course answers to that question are shrouded in uncertainty, but Costa Rica emerged at the top of our list of places where life is likely to remain pleasant as the fossil fuel era draws to an end. It’s geographically isolated, small in area and population, with a history of independence. The population is well educated and relatively wealthy, and the political system is stable.
Life is pleasant year-round without the need for either heating or cooling, so household energy usage is minimized. Climate varies with altitude, warmer at lower elevations and cooler at higher elevations; you can choose the climate that suits you. A wide variety of crops can be cultivated, and there’s the possibility of shifting up or down in elevation to accommodate a shifting climate. Electricity generation is almost entirely (~93%) hydropower, supplemented by a little wind, solar, and geothermal, so the country’s electricity supply is not fossil fuel dependent.
While local effects of climate change cannot yet be foreseen, Costa Rica, being close to the equator, is far removed from the northern latitudes that are forecast to bear the brunt of climate change and that are already experiencing extreme weather events at increasing frequencies. Central America seems safe from the the threat of desertification that may affect other tropical and subtropical latitudes.
Why bother, at our age and with only a couple of decades left to live out our lives? After all, the economic, social, and climate collapse we foresee is most likely to be slow and gradual – by the time things get bad, we will almost certainly exist as no more than memories. We have no family responsibilities. While I have children, lamentably I was and remain absent as a father, and now that they’re grown we have no significant contact. We with our friends made a family in Oregon. But like a biological family, you can’t make choices for others, and what seems right for us may not be the road others would choose.
We still have time to become part of a new “family”, with those of like mind and sympathies. In Costa Rica, we can relearn how to live without globalization, and go back to more localized economies. We can together endeavor to develop a kind of ecological refuge where a few humans might survive and even prosper despite the ravaging of Earth’s climate system. Perhaps there’s a chance, however slight, that humans have not doomed themselves to extinction.
And if we should be wrong – if our fears prove nothing more than a reprise of the many prophecies of Armageddon that litter human history – at least we will have “lived for the moment and enjoyed the now life.” No small consolation.
And one small note: today we move into our new house in El Cajón de Grecia. Tomorrow our container of goods arrive. And also tomorrow, our contractor is to begin work on the new pathway to our casita (guest house) and other assorted projects. Hooray!