Sunday, January 01, 2006

After the Peak: What will become of the Joffrey Ballet?

For those who have begun planning for a low-energy future, the main concerns are rightly food, transportation, heat, health care and local production of goods of all kinds. On a recent trip to Chicago, however, I began thinking about the fate of our great artistic and cultural institutions. In the spirit of the oft-quoted Biblical saying, "Man does not live by bread alone," I wondered whether anyone will conclude that Chicago's world-renown Joffrey Ballet is worth saving as energy supplies become more and more scarce.

Chicagoans of all types nearly filled the auditorium for a recent performance of The Nutcracker which I attended. I found the performance intensely beautiful and occasionally (and intentionally) delightfully amusing. It involved not only the professional Joffrey dancers but also young singers and dancers from the Chicago community. Can we do without such unifying community events? Can we live by bread alone?

Everyone who thinks seriously about a post-peak world will probably agree that the arts need to be an integral part of that world. Yet, we know only too well how easily they are neglected in our current world even though we have been rich in energy for a long time. How much more might the arts be slighted in an energy-deprived world!

While in Chicago I also visited the Shedd Aquarium and wondered how such a place might function in a post-peak world. Both the Art Institute of Chicago and the nearby Field Museum of Natural History seemed much more likely to remain viable since their exhibits are largely static and, of course, inanimate. The Shedd Aquarium, on the other hand, must continuously filter 3 million gallons of water, hold the temperature of that water as low as 38 degrees (for the penguins) and feed an entire underwater zoo of animals daily. The aquarium seems certain to be shuttered even under the most mild assumptions of a post-peak world. Perhaps marking it as an inevitable casualty would allow us to go in search of less energy-intensive ways to teach the public and especially our children about the natural world which lies beneath the sea.

At the other extreme, a local jazz singer I listened to in a hotel bar and a one-man show on the life of George Gershwin both seemed much more likely to survive a peak than any of the other forms of entertainment or cultural attractions I saw. The relatively low energy content of these two performances seem to favor them in an energy-challenged future.

Still, should we close down the more energy-intensive Joffrey Ballet in a post-peak oil world? Should we let all the great theater, opera and ballet companies in the world go defunct? Should we close the museums and aquariums? Should we shutter the world's symphony orchestras? And, what about our libraries? Will we allow these great storehouses of cultural memory and knowledge to fall into disrepair and disuse?

No doubt popular entertainments will survive, kept alive by small groups in every community. And, arts and crafts are likely to flourish in a world where household objects are increasingly the product of local craft work. Folk knowledge will become an important part of our education again. But what about knowledge of the remarkable scientific and cultural achievements of the fossil fuel age? Will that knowledge be lost?

Without planning, decisions about the great artistic, cultural and scientific institutions of our society may end up being afterthoughts. Under the cloud of an emergency we could lose many of the most important parts of our heritage. And, should that happen, we would surely end up testing whether man can live by bread alone.


Anonymous said...

The Glory that Was Greece took place without the assistance of fossil fuels.

And if Mozart could stage The Marriage of Figaro without fossil fuels, presumably someone else could also.

John Milton said...

True, a society does not need to be based on fossil fuels to produce "high culture" but it does need surplus wealth if such things are to be available to "the masses" and not just as private entertainments for a wealthy elite.

Not to suggest that there will be actual war in the U.S., but using life in wartime as an example of a culture in the midst of severe stress; The zoo animals in Berlin and Moscow during world war 2, and in Bagdad during the gulf war wound up shot, roaming the streets loose, or on the dinner tables of hungry citizens.

Anonymous said...

This is a thoughtful posting, Kurt. There are so many aspects to the coming decline, and acquaria (spl?) plus ballets and symphonies stand for a whole array of activities that make life more than "bread alone".

It's true that Athens and Rome, and Vienna managed just fine -- each for awhile-- without oil, coal and natural gas. But they also didn't have massive overshoots in population numbers --whose decline would have had to be managed and suffered through as their wealth and energy supplies declined.

My hope is that after the chaos of the 're-adjustment' the arts will recover to a degree and on a scale commensurate with the new conditions. I doubt if the new conditions will include things like amplification, and recording. So, the production of artistic events will be --as you suggest-- on a much more small-locality scale.

Museums may have 'static' and 'non-living' exhibits, but humidity and temperature variations are notorious for damaging paintings in particular. I think the great art museums will face challenges whose current solutions we just take for granted.

Last night in Amherst MA, my brother's furnace appeared to have broken, and for the half hour it was off, the second half of the night ahead appeared bleak indeed. The temperature outside was in the 20's (a fairly mild winter-night temperature for New England), and yet without the heat coming back on, there would have been broken pipes, and severe discomfort --just for starters.

Thanks for seeing --and bringing up-- so many facets of the peak oil issue.


John Milton said...

I don't mean to be too critical of Cameron, or to try and turn this into a thread about home plumbing... But I think Camerons post is indicative of how intellectually dependent we have become when it comes to assumptions about utilities and other services being always available.

Since moving water does not freeze until it gets very cold the simple trick of opening all the taps in the house a little so that a trickle of water flows through them will keep pipes from freezing during many power failures or simillar events. If its worse than that or if the house is on a well and the pump is off due to a power failure most all houses have a master shut off and drain valve to allow water to be removed from the pipes in the house. (don't forget to bail out the toilet tanks and pour some plumbers anti-freeze into the toilet bowls and down the drains of the sinks to stop the water filled "traps" in the drain lines from freezing and bursting)

Maybe we should be considering offering these sort of basic urban survival skills courses for dealing with "tough times" in the same way that we do basic "first aid" courses...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John! Helpful.

Anonymous said...

Americans are nice, developed people - but sometimes I am left wondering as to whether their phenomenal development has not been too much for their basic mental processes, and has rendered them a bit sclerotic... This post is a case in point.

P.I.Tchaikovsky, the composer of The Nutcracker, died in 1895 well before what is considered the start of the Petroleum age. Although Petroleum was being extracted in the US for 36 years before that, and the Imperial Russian state of the time had the world's largest drilling operation going on then in Baku-on-the- Caspian, in its province of Azerbaijan, the world was hardly dependent on the stuff in the manner we now are. Apart from a few factory applications, it was maily used to light parrafin lamps...

Before Tchaikovsky's untimely death by suicide, all his immortal compositions and operas used to play regularly in Moscow and St.Petersburg of the 1870s and 80s without fail. There wasn't any petroleum dependency then, and I don't see why they shouldn't continue playing. On the other hand, it is "pop", rock-n-roll, "techno" and electronic "druggie" music of the "postmodern" era that will suffer the most, if not totally collapse and vanish due to oil depletion. And many will say good riddance, too. Mr.Cobb need not worry.

Anonymous said...

Art happens. Humans will create art because we must. Performers will perform with or without electricity, as they did in the Nazi concentration camps and in the Japanese internment camps in the U.S., and as they do now on the streets in any big city.

Whether the performing arts, museums, aquaria, etc. will survive The Revolution is another question entirely. I think it is sad that the business of how art is consumed, by the social and economic elite in our culture, is believed to be a measure of how civilized we are.

Rather than worry about the fate of ballet companies, I suggest that each of us sing, dance, draw and write. Move away from the CRT or LCD for a while and talk to another human while looking that human in the eye.

Anonymous said...

In general response to the varous postings that art requires an economic surplus, I disagree.

For example, the great age of Chinese poetry, during the Tang Dynasty coincided with a massive civil war, the An Lu-shan Rebellion, during which China's population dropped from about 50 million to about 17 million. In one poem, Tu Fu, the greatest Chinese poet, mourns the death by starvation of one of his sons.

Blues music resulted from the misery of slavery and Jim Crow in the South.

In contrast, weathy societies can be crass and banal. Indeed, culturally, contemporary America is better characterized by consumerism than grand opera.

One could go on and on.

( And, please, please, nobody cite Andy Warhol to me (grin) )

Anonymous said...

"For those who have begun planning for a low-energy future,"

Well, that's an exercise about as pointless as waiting for Elvis to show up alive at you 7-11 ...

Energy is abundant, and gets more abundant the more knowledge and technology we apply to make each Joule of energy go further.
We have more energy now than ever, fossil fuel and otherwise.

To show how amazingly abundant energy is, a plantation of only 2000 nuclear power plants could supply all the worlds energy, cheaply, safely, and without emissions.
Electricity can be used to power just about anything we use except jets.
Using biodeisel plus nuclear power plus wind/hydro/solar, lots of energy would be available, without fossil fuels.

Sure, some ornery enemies of progress may object
(hmmmm 'civilization, but minor waste issues, OR, world civilization reverts to a new Dark Age' .... hmmm, is it a close call?!?

- parting thought: Marxism is for Morons.