Back to our future

My father recently told me a story about going to a doctor / dentist by horse and buggy when he was 11 years old. The trip took three hours back in 1925. He remembers sitting on his father’s knee while the dentist removed four teeth without anesthetic. He notes “they could hear me back in Magaguadavic.”

That little farming community was settled in the early 1800’s on marginal land full of rocks and hillsides. Listening to stories of working in the wood camps from dawn to dusk for a dollar a day was fascinating to a child interested in history. Interspersed with the truth were incredible yarns of the exploits of Paul Bunyan, a giant woodcutter and Babe, the blue ox. Those stories kept us interested while travelling on car trips.

Woods work meant cutting trees with axe and bucksaw and the use of horses to pull the logs out to the road. During the winter, the roads were not ploughed and skis were installed on the buggy to allow travel when necessary. Heating in the typical farmhouse was by the central wood cookstove. Due to poor insulation and wind infiltration, the houses were cold by morning, sometimes freezing the chamberpot. What was also incredible was storing meat upstairs, as certain rooms were cold enough to be temporary freezers. At some point in time, the family had a Model A Ford.

Neil finally got an invitation for an all expense paid trip to Europe in 1942 and in later years told us some stories of the travels to countries such as England, Italy and the Netherlands and of course the seasickness on the crossings of the Atlantic.

After the war, life changed with the proliferation of cars and oil heat. He went to work for NB Tel in Saint John climbing poles and repairing lines. Although the standard of life was becoming easier for everyone, he retained the work ethic and thriftiness learned from the hard economic times of the great depression. Never one to waste anything, he was always generous with others. He would buy potatoes in bulk and grow other vegetables in a garden. Some vegetables were bottled and some kept in a cold room to last most of the winter.

Our discussions on the future of the world in recent years were interesting. I had come to appreciate his wise use of resources, always trying to fix it up and make it do. Oil has transformed our world, whether it is with large machinery moving earth, or the ability to fly around the world on a whim.

What should be clear is that we are starting on the downward slope to a world with considerably less energy. Oil has gone from $55 to $90 a barrel in a year as production reserves decline. Although oil at $90 dollars a barrel is still relatively inexpensive for the work that it can do, it likely will go considerably higher. At $250 or $350 a barrel or more, our lives are going to change. Will produce from foreign lands be available? Will you have a job? Will you have money to heat your home and gas your car? Will the social safety net developed over decades slowly disappear?

Air travel will decline to a fraction of the present day levels and will be replaced by trains and horses. The road system will decline.

We have been living in a world of peace and prosperity in North America and we mistakenly assume that it will continue. Is our past really our future? Of course it is. We are not preparing for anything different. In the absence of a plan for the future, our future will do the plan for us. It is quite natural that our political leaders avoid talking and planning for the future. It is most uncomfortable to admit that we have failed to understand the real nature of our position on this planet.

My father saw the transition from oil independence to dependence. I will see a portion of the transition back to independence, which will be involuntary on our part. Our children may live in poverty and desperation. There is a small chance that we can change our future, if we were to start soon.

But life is fleeting. We are now losing the older generation that has lived through times greatly different from the disposable society that we now experience. I will miss the advice of my father who was one of the kindest and wisest men I have known. A very bright light was recently extinguished by the ravages of time.

Without that experience, can we see clearly enough to organize our world better and make it really sustainable? As a simple example, do we really need to use fuel to import bottled water from Fiji to North America?

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