Babylon, O Babylon
Your streets were wide, your wine was strong
You caught us in your dizzy throng
A thousand tongues, a thousand songs
Each one a dog chasing a tail
Our meanings and our memories fail
Still faint and from beyond the pale
You brought the show that we all saw
Your might was right, your might was raw
You brought the gun that brought the law
Your missionaries walked the moon
You're promising a comeback soon
Untouched, the stars sing their own tune,
Unbowed by all kings:
To drive across this much of the United States (Comer, Georgia to Pembina, North Dakota) in three days is for me to contemplate the full horror of the vision I cannot shake: a vision of collapse.
Today fuel is still cheap. We can still travel 800 km in the hours of a single working day, for $50, an amount Jenn can still earn in a single hour of her work. Today we are still kings and queens upon the land, our chariots still swift and at our ready.
But the weather is changing frightfully fast: 18C in Iowa yesterday, January the 30th, 2012. In Minnesota, the eighth month in a row of record-breaking warm weather so far this fall and winter.
And now, as we pass into North Dakota, the underground explosives of the boys "fracking oil" at Woolerston sound the rumbling scrape of America hitting the bottom of its barrel.
Fracking oil - a phrase poetically apt in its violent and expletive resonances. We are a sorry bunch of Mother-frackers, every last one of us. An entire continent of frack-whores and junkies.
This is what I think as we burn through mile after mile of interstate. Us and millions of others in the world, burning through 84 million barrels of oil every day. America eats and regurgitates its anxieties as advertising lingo: "Energy Security" one billboard promises in terms of corn. "Peace of Mind," another shrieks. I am car sick. I close my eyes to the blur of shrill and desparate capital lettering whizzing past me, try to be still and not vomit up the salty road snacks I have overeaten.
And I think of the people. I am not passing monsters here, but people. Families who love their children, who want to see them succeed in their endeavours, see them build solid futures on the edifice we are bequeathing them. And so, to speak of its crumbling is nearly criminal.
There were 8 TVs in the restaurant/lounge where we ate our breakfast this morning, each on a different channel. I was terribly distracted by all these, and yet uninformed entirely. Which must be the point. In an economy constructed of smoke and mirrors, to speak forthrightly would only be to hasten its end. "Consumer confidence" after all, is the name of the faith that still manages to safeguard our social contract, however strenously.
When we get home, after burning through about 400L of diesel, I will set fire to the carbon of trees to warm our little house, and will know this act of resistance to be entirely symbolic. It may heal my imagination (no small thing), but it will not heal the land. This thing that is happening is too big for me to stop or to withstand.
Not long ago, a black man became president of this nation, heralding vaguely, boldly, "Yes, we can!" It was a nobler lie than that of his currently front-running contender: "Corporations are people too." But still, it was a lie. Three and a half years later, the significance of putting a black man in the White House has turned out to be precisely skin-deep.
No, we can't. We can't stop ourselves from burning through a billion year inheritance in a century. We can't retreat from triggering catastrophic climate changes. We can't avoid the pain of collapse.
Our humbling will hurt. I no longer have hope of avoiding it. If anything, I pray for its hastening, even though its portents really are beginning to frighten me. I am choosing (foolishly, perhaps, but in an age of absurdity, what choices are there other than whose fool to be?) to identify my hope with the hopes of the prophets of old. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah - those who foretold the necessity of, but also the healing latent in national disaster: that in our crisis we might repent, that we might finally reckon with the truth of our iniquity, and receive new hearts of flesh, in place of our hearts of stone.
Whence come new hearts?
Another apocalyptic seer, who called himself "the Human One," broke through to a fearless love in the face of terror. Instead of preparing his disciples to circle the wagons at the end of the world as they knew it, he prepared them to risk love, to give away rather than protect assets, to receive from him a peace "not as the world gives."
Therein lies my hope. As I write these words, I am happy to be home.