Ants, Happiness and The End Is Nigh

June 5, 2010

Reading widely and observing often – people, animals, plants, my garden, it doesn’t matter what – are critical pursuits for a writer.  I’ve found they come in handy for doomers, too.  Fortunately, I enjoy both in that deeply contented way we tend to associate with genuine happiness.

Over the last few days, I’ve done quite a bit of both reading and observing, waiting for an idea for this week’s blog post to percolate up to my conscious mind and eager fingers.  The garden is coming up nicely – except for a couple of recalcitrant okra plants – putting to rest my worries that the little holes dug by some rogue squirrel or rabbit where I’d planted my seeds meant they’d made a meal of my garden before it had even gotten started.  We had enough rain, over the week, that I didn’t need to spend a lot of time watering, but not so much that the garden was overwhelmed by weeds.  It gave me time to turn to reading across the internet and doing some observing of –as it turned out – a persistent trail of ants that had found and swarmed my honey jar on a free standing cabinet in the kitchen.

Last year the ants came in around the kitchen window screen and trailed across the main cabinet.  When I left a small lid of honey in the windowsill, they came in only far enough to take the honey and, after a day or two, when it was gone, they politely left.  Not so, this year’s tribe.  Once the little lid of honey was gone, they found and swarmed the syrup jars.  I knew, from last year’s reading, that a nest can have up to a million ants.  It’s been a hard year and I simply couldn’t afford to support such extravagant numbers.  So, I poisoned the honey and kept a watchful eye out for where they might be coming in.  Except for the time or two when I bumped the cabinet and they scattered in confusion, they maintained the dual trails to and from the poisoned honey for the next two full days.  As the bodies mounted and the trails thinned, I was finally able to trace their movements back to where they were coming in – under the baseboard of the wall behind the small cabinet.  By the next day, they and the poisoned honey were gone.  My hopeful guess is, that in their relentless determination to get all the honey, they had finally poisoned the nest.

I cleaned up the remains of the dead ants, wiped down the cabinet with a bleach solution to kill any scent trails, sprayed the baseboards and along the floor with neem oil to discourage any malingerers and turned to reading.

Three articles caught my eye this week, all of which I urge you to read.  The first is an article by Richard Heinburg, a prolific and always thoughtful writer on peak oil issues, titled The End Is Nigh. Using the current Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico as a starting point, he takes the reader through a short history of the extraction industries – particularly oil – and the structure, technologies, economics and environmental impacts involved.  He goes back to to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and the impact it will have on future oil production and ends with a section titled, This Is What the End of the Oil Age Looks Like.  The story does not have a happy ending.

As I finished the article, my mind went back to the ants.  It is certainly true that the corporate, financial and government leaders – those “powers that be” we doomers love to hate – in their relentless pursuit of the honey pot of constant growth and bigger profits have poisoned the honey.  But, the rest of us are not guiltless in this.  We worker ants, in our relentless pursuit of that non-negotiable American way of life, have been only too willing to carry that poisoned honey back to the nest.

Heinburg ends his article with:

“But where does that leave us? In an oily mess at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico… and entangled in what may be the ultimate Catch 22: We want more petroleum-fueled economic growth, but we hate what the pursuit of petroleum is doing to us (not to mention the environment), and it looks as though “more” may not be an option much longer in any case.

There’s just no easy answer here, folks.”

We have, all of us together, finally managed to poison the nest.

Fiction writers play a constant game of “what if?”  What will happen if I give my hero red hair, but no temper?  What if my heroine lives in a colony on the moon where she discovers an alien artifact?  “What if …” lays out the landscape and tenor of the particular Hero’s Journey.

Sometimes, it turns out, sociologists play this same game.  The second article that caught my eye this week was an interview with social scientist, Jörg Friedrichs, of the University of Oxford, found here: He discussed the results of a study he did and a subsequent article he wrote after asking, What might happen, especially in oil-importing countries, if peak oil occurs?  The pre-print article detailing his study is well worth reading.

Because, as he states in his article, “an event comparable to peak oil has never happened at the global level,” he studied three oil-importing countries which had historical disruptions of oil supplies on the order of 20% as “proxy” countries and came up with three possible scenarios of how oil-importing countries around the world might react in the face of peak oil.

I won’t go into the details here, but the study centered around the responses of the following three countries. The first is the predatory militarism of WW II Japan as they responded to the American oil embargo with a preemptory attack on Pearl Harbor. The second was the totalitarian retrenchment of North Korea after the break-up of the Soviet Union disrupted North Korean oil supplies.  The elite chose to protect their privileges while allowing hundreds of thousands of ordinary Koreans to die of hunger.  The third, also caused by the break-up of the Soviet Union, was the socioeconomic adaptation response of Cuba, where the Castro regime “actively encouraged” Cubans to rely on social networks and non-industrial means of coping with energy scarcity and food shortages.

Most of my doomer friends would agree with his conclusion that the United States would be an obvious candidate for the strategy of predatory militarism.  The two wars begun by the previous administration, in which we are still embroiled, seem proof of that.  Some of them are even sure our government is planning a fallback strategy of totalitarian retrenchment.  The Patriot Act and a string of laws and executive orders allowing the government more control over our lives, more “spying” on the populace at every level certainly does seem to point that way.

But the writer in me, ever asking, “What if …?” looks around and sees other possibilities.  What if President Obama really is trying to work us out of the two costly wars we’re in?  General Odierno said, just yesterday, that we are still on track to reduce troop levels in Iraq to 50,000 by September first.  And we certainly seem, behind the scenes, to be encouraging President Karzai of Afghanistan to take ever more responsibility for his country so we can keep that July, 2011 deadline for withdrawal.  What if our posturing toward Iran and our bombing raids along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border (as obscene as they are) aren’t signs of immanent war, but really are attempts to destroy al-Qaida, force the Taliban toward peace and warn away the surrounding countries as we reduce our presence in the region?

What if Michelle Obama’s frequent appearances urging us toward personal gardening and more reliance on localized and healthier foods is really the government’s way of preparing us to be less wasteful, more self reliant as we approach peak oil?

What if the economic downturn and the government’s subsequent bailout of the financial industry, their spending of “money we don’t have” on unemployment insurance, food stamps and other relief programs, their constant stream of  green shoots “propaganda” is their fumbling, bumbling, bureaucratic way of trying to “take us down easy”?  What if they are working hard to give the American people time to go through what Elizabeth Kübler-Ross referred to as the five stages of grief?  I see signs that Americans, each at their own pace, are slowly moving from the denial of the last decade through anger, bargaining, depression and, for some, acceptance.

“Baloney,” my doomer friends will cry.  “Anyway, it wouldn’t work.  We’re animals, hardwired for aggression and violence.”  True enough.  But, did you know – and this brings me to the third article I read this week – we are also “Hardwired for Happiness”?

In what I found to be an engrossing article of the same title at the Dana Foundation, , author Silvia Helena Cardoso takes the reader through what researchers are learning about happiness and the brain.

Although scientists haven’t identified all the circuitry involved, we have evolved genetically based brain circuitry dedicated to happiness.  About 60% of happiness seems to be genetically controlled, the other 40% being affected by environmental factors.  We each appear to have a basic “maintenance” level of happiness, a set point – set slightly toward happiness – to which we individually return after a period of time, when the happiness level is temporarily increased or decreased by important events in our lives.

We don’t generally think of happiness as a survival mechanism in the same way we think of fear or aggression and the instincts of fight or flight.  However, given that doom in one form or another has been the default setting for most of our history as a species, maybe we doomers ought to give that assumption another look.  If we’ve evolved specific, dedicated brain circuitry for happiness, if we’ve spent the evolutionary energy evolving a set point to return us to happiness homeostasis, is it possible that we have survived as a species this long at least partially due to (gasp!) happiness?

It’s hard to define happiness.  It seems to be a little like trying to define obscenity, in that we know it when we see it, in ourselves or others. But we’re not talking mania or irrational exuberance, here.  One of the definitions in the article is “a general average level of contentment and well-being,  with a high frequency of positive feelings such as good humor, joy, laughter, hope, and enthusiasm, coupled with relative freedom from negative feelings such as sadness, worry, anxiety, anger, irritability, despondency, and despair.”  Happiness seems to involve the ability to set and meet goals.  When we are out of whack regarding out set points, drugs such as anti-depressants may help us rebalance, but so do activities like meditation.

I’ve read elsewhere that, if the basic needs of food, shelter and safety are met, most people around the world – even those living in what we might consider dire poverty – say they are “happy”.

“Aha,” my doomer friends will cry.  “There’s the rub, because everybody ‘knows’ that as doom descends, we will retreat into selfishness and aggression, leaving millions – nay, billions – without even those most basic needs met, to fall by the wayside in starvation, disease and death.”

It’s certainly a possibility.  Yet, even during this worldwide economic crisis, in every disaster we’ve had, millions (dare I say, billions?) of people around the world – rich and poor, individually, and collectively as governments and large corporations (however much we may question their motives) – have given in an outpouring of generosity to provide relief.  Yes, the attempts are bumbling at times, suspiciously un-altruistic at other times, but doing it seems to make us “happy”.  Could that be the evolutionary advantage of happiness?

So, I must ask, what if, instead of retreating into fear and aggression as we descend the slope of doom, we pressed forward – individually and collectively – letting our happiness circuitry run amok in and orgy of giving, sharing, caring and “happiness”?

Sometimes my doomer friends remind me of those ants, too.  In almost every doomer forum I’ve known, you will find sub-forums full of threads on new potentials for doom – each poster “bumping the cabinet” with a story more horrible than the last.  We doomers will scurry around in momentary confusion with remarks like, “Yikes”, “We’re doomed”, or “Time to grab the bug out bag” before dutifully falling in line to carry the newest bit of poisoned doom honey back to the nest.  Just once, I’d like to see a sub-forum titled, “And Now, For the Good News”.   We could post local news of good things going on in relocalization, gardening and self-sufficiency, national news of people sharing and caring, an occasional article about something the government or big corporation are doing right, maybe even the occasional sign that people are waking up to the dangers of our situation without panic and with actual productive steps toward mitigation.  After all, it’s probably true for both ants and people that we are what we eat.

Okay, I’m not going to burst in to a rousing chorus of Bobby McFerrin’s, “Don’t Worry; Be Happy” here. I would like to reiterate, though, as I end this post, we spent a lot of evolutionary energy developing a happiness circuit in the human brain and a mechanism to keep us in relative homeostasis regarding that happiness.  Maybe it would benefit us, as doomers, to cultivate happiness along with our gardens, to hone our happiness set point along with our fighting skills.  Who knows?  It may turn out that happiness is as important for our survival as the well-hidden stash, the full armory or the bug out bag as the end comes nigh.

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2 Responses to Ants, Happiness and The End Is Nigh

  1. ebook leser says:

    Environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: The drilling rig leased by the oil company BP Deepwater Horizon was on 22 April sunk after an explosion, since large quantities of crude oil to flow from several leaks. The oil is now threatening the ecologically sensitive Mississippi Delta to damage sustained. I am disappointed that not a single one of the culprits in jail.

    • theozarker says:

      I’m disappointed, too. I can only imagine how the folks along the gulf are feeling right now. And the damage to the animals, birds and ecosystems along the coast. My fear is that BP will get out of paying for much of the damage and it will revert back to the taxpayer.

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