Yesterday, Michelle Chandler and I spoke to 300 students at a UMass Sustainable Living class. The talk went well. I really enjoyed watching Michell’s powerpoint presentation of her yard’s transformation from typical suburban desert, flat and featureless, to a food producing oasis. She manages to raise rabbits (lots of rabbits), chickens and goats along with fruit trees, berry bushes, perennial food plants and annual vegetables in the space most people fill up with swimming pools, hot tubs and lawn ornaments. It was really inspiring. I left Michelle’s house with a rabbit (freezer ready) and four dozen eggs as my chickens are just not laying well. With that bonanza, I might make custard tonight.

On my way home, driving alone in my warm, dark car, my mind wandered around what I had heard and what I offered. As usual after these talks, I thought about what I had left out, what I wish I had said, would have said had there been more time or if I had not been afraid of offending or crossing some line. Here is what I wish I had said.

Look around you. Everything you touch, everything you’re wearing, every bit of food you put in your mouth today is a product. Your computer and cell phone, those jeans and the backpack, the water bottle and the water are all possible because someone has mined the soil or oceans or the rocks to pull out a resource that energy has transformed into some thing that you can probably not imagine life without. There was a bounty of riches out there and we have figured out how to use those riches up to make our lives easier and more comfortable and lots more fun. But we’re like the trust fund kid who squandered the gift. How shocking to find that you can’t keep on taking and never returning. What a concept. The bank account eventually runs dry. We have fouled the water, depleted the soil, wasted so much of the energy and now we’re overdrawn.

When you meet someone, the first question usually asked is, “What’s your major?” Once you graduate that morphs into, “What do you do?” That may not be so easy to answer in an energy constrained world. Occupations like social worker or travel agent are likely to be far less relevant than farmer or welder, seamstress or carpenter. Now is the time to be thinking about that. You’re going to need real skills. Whenever possible, do for yourself. You must realize that the service economy is only possible with cheap energy slaves to do for us. So bake some bread and ride an old bike. Mend your jacket and change your oil. Buy some books on gardening and cooking. Find out what grows where you live. Get used to living with less. Have some fun that does not require electricity. Figure out a plan B. Have a plan C. Watch the news and read some things that are out of your comfort zone. There is always more to a story.

I don’t want to be a fear monger but here’s the truth of it. Life is going to change. It will be smaller and require more physical work. We aren’t special and we aren’t entitled. The laws of nature and physics and mathmetics could not care less about what you want or think you deserve. The dumbest commercial ever produced says, “Go ahead. You’re worth it.” You wanna bet. Our hair color and piercings, our clothing and taste in music will no longer define you. What are you good at? How do you contribute? Really. What do you do?

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