Waiting at the Depot

In my younger years, I probably could’ve been described as an anti-government anarchist. But now, since I’m seventy-five, perhaps wiser and certainly more cognizant of the vulnerabilities of the solitary life and an aging body, I’m (perhaps improbably) on the Lincoln County board: one of twenty-two “supervisors” in a northern Wisconsin county not agricultural like counties farther south and not a tourism destination like counties immediately to the north. (Our specialties are woods and swamps.  Deer hunting. Snowmobiles and mosquitoes. A few wolves.)

We also have a county-owned nursing home, and I’ve been involved with its oversight governance for nearly ten years. We’ve lately downsized the number of beds from 180 to 120 because the consultant prediction of a “silver tsunami” did not, like the Second Coming, arrive quickly enough to satisfy overeager expectations. And COVID had kicked us in the pants. I’ve tried, on occasion, to object to the use of the word “industry” to describe human care—as in “the nursing home industry”; and I’ve gotten about as far with that line of argument as I have with this one: Climate change is going to drive the continental U.S. population inland from the coasts, and an unstoppable immigration from the south will in general push people northward. Eventually—and it won’t take all that long—some of those folks are going to make it all the way to Wisconsin, and they’re not all going to end up in Madison or Milwaukee. The silver tsunami, when it arrives, will come dressed in Rainbow colors.

Now this isn’t necessarily going to be demographically obvious by next summer. But its energy is building, and it’s building fast. However, a major and persistent shift in population—Maine to Minnesota says James Howard Kunstler in The Long Emergency—will only partly be due to climate change in a physical sense. If the most immediate impacts will be a considerable increase in wild weather and desperate migration, the other impacts are destined to be energy usage and economic dynamism. That is, the longer we put off rationally downsizing our use of fossil fuels, the more jolting and anxiety-producing will be the inevitable consequence when constrictions are imposed, not only on our personal energy consumption but on the overall economy which functions precisely through this current magnitude and scale of fossil fuel usage. Downsize the fuel and the economy falters and sputters and begins to crack up. It’s going to be rough sledding even with the utmost care and rational planning. Our wildly over-energized system is a monstrous thing to ecologically downsize and humanely alter. But contraction will happen a lot faster than did the expansion; and it’s bound to be a bumpy ride.

Downsizing will be hard no matter what. But the urgency intensifies because Blue is afraid, at this point, to say this stuff out loud—well, both too afraid and too energy numb—while Red is propaganda numb to the point (and condition) of being an ecological zombie. And the big media don’t go there. Not really. Not yet.

The atmosphere of our massively normal social consciousness is, especially for the poor, a daily splashing in a sea of rent and food and utility bills and transportation costs and sick kids. Their horizon (besides TV and video games) is next payday. The middle class has a bigger horizon, but that horizon is contemplated from a rather comfortable, well-proportioned home of financial stability. That boat isn’t really rocking, yet. Nothing to be seriously alarmed about, yet. I can only speculate about the wealthy. Well, yes and no. Red agitation is designed to obstruct working-class recognition of climate change or, more specifically, designed to obstruct the immediacy and urgency of climate roiling. That means the political purpose of the Red propaganda mill is to prevent real policy formation and actual action. And that seems to imply that the really wealthy—for it’s they who are at the base of this political fabrication—either don’t believe that climate change is real, or they’re using obstruction as an expedited tactic by which to concentrate wealth to the tipping point of aristocratic resurrection, or they’re so deeply into Christian Left Behind brainwashing that they’ve become an extinctionary death-instinct personification force. Zombies for Christ. Or maybe it’s some sloppy cocktail of all three. Who’s to say. These aren’t the folks I hobnob with.

Ten years on the county board (and three years on a local township board twenty-five years ago—until I was thrown off in a recall election) have taught me the importance of government. That doesn’t mean government doesn’t need real structural change and democratic reorientation. But we’ve come to reflexively depend on an organized public sphere. Roads, fire protection, cops, the library, clean water, etc., etc. (Social Security, though the monthly check is small, is crucial to my life.) The prairie populists of the 1890s wanted socialism of the big stuff and an ethical and lawful libertarianism for the small. So did the English economic historian R. H. Tawney. That arrangement—socialized industries as the big umbrella and a whole lot of cooperative and private endeavors filling in the smaller cultural space—fits perfectly with a major downsizing of the extinctionary End Times machine with its two restless and relentless moving parts, Class and War.

The name I’d like (at least for the time being) is libertarian ecological democratic socialism. Seventy years ago the Milwaukee Road had passenger rail service in my hometown of Jenny Bull Falls. (Well, Jenny is now Merrill. Why it’s Merrill and no longer Jenny Bull Falls is a familiar story of abandonment: The railroad guy named Merrill bolted—the town had married him for his rails—and Jenny was stuck with his name.) In the not-so-distant future, the new train complex will be called the Wisconsin Road, and citizens—the people—will own it. I may not live long enough to ride it, but I’m already waiting at the Jenny depot, ready to watch the first Wisconsin Road glide in.

Paul Gilk lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin. His home is a reconstructed nineteenth-century log cabin, without electricity or running water. He is the author of several books including Green Politics is Eutopian, Nature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture, and Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego.