Houston, We May (or May Not) Have a Problem

February 15, 2009

Nothing against Houston, you understand. It’s just where I happened to be when I was assailed by cultural pondering.

We naked apes have been here before

At the conclusion of a long series of curious circumstances—which is to say, my life—I found myself driving through Houston, on my way to a conference devoted to high-tech land surveying equipment. Such conferences are more exciting than they sound, but they’d almost have to be wouldn’t they? I find them inspiring; the speakers at these events look around at our crumbling world, at the failing infrastructure and dwindling resources, and they see… business opportunity. They believe that technology is equal to the challenge, that new knowledge will keep pace with the horsemen of armageddon, and even pull ahead a bit.

But driving through Houston, I couldn’t help but wonder if the whiz-bang technology that humans are assembling is going to be the saviour of our civilization, or merely its enabler, allowing us to extend our run of resource extraction another decade or two before the inevitable crash.

On the one hand, it’s a dumb question; history, after all, stretches back several thousand years and here we all are, still truckin’. So it doesn’t seem impossible that our species might keep it all together for another millennia or two, at which point it becomes, well, not my problem.

But on the other hand Houston, and cities like it—vast concrete scabs on Pachamama’s skin—seem inconceivable without gigantic inputs of fossil fuels and wishful thinking and they make me quail with dread; they’re the movie sets of apocalypse, and the call for action seems long overdue.

And there is yet another other hand; perhaps it is going to be, has to be, both at once for all our days. Perhaps we will always be going to hell in a hand-basket without ever getting there, quite; always in peril, but never entirely bereft. For we naked apes have been here before. In the 14th century, for example, the Black Plague carried away half our number in Europe and Asia, and in the early decades of the century past about a hundred million of us were felled by Spanish Influenza. We have fought resource wars more or less continually, over wood and water and arable land, over gold and spice and even guano, of all things. And always, when times are bleak and death is all about, our seers and mystics declare that the end of the world is at hand; half in fear, half in glee, they tell us that an angry god will soon be upon us.

The current fashion in world ending cataclysm, at least in my set, is Mayan flavored, and the year 2012 is said to mark the conclusion of history but, of course, the Christians angrily declare that no, their god is the only one who has the right to slaughter us, and the UFO cults and the Kabballists and the extinction biologists all push their preferred catastrophic scenarios. Maybe they’re all right; God, after all, is mysterious above all things and one expects a staggering finale from an impresario like Him. And maybe they’re all wrong; in all our time together on this planet, we’ve always managed to keep ourselves in a panic… maybe we just like the sensation.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Han 02.03.12 at 3:47 am

Someone likes us in panic, that’s for sure. Turn on the TV (or surf to the paranoid side of the web), you see mayhem and crisis everywhere. Terrorist alert going from orange to red and back to orange again without an explanation.

Still, my personal life is hardly affected, go figure.

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