It is often said that the test of any civilization is how it treats its weakest members. Those who are compromised physically, mentally or emotionally create a sort of live-action Rorschach test. Do the weak among us evoke our compassion or our scorn? If we are among the lucky ones who have our full faculties, our reaction to the weak says more about our view of the disfigured, stricken and defeated parts of our own psyche--the parts which make us feel most vulnerable and ashamed--than it does about the weak among us.
Even if we feel compassion for those less fortunate, we are rarely called upon to find the limits of that compassion. In a post-peak oil world that will in all likelihood no longer be the case. Let me do a thought experiment involving two hypothetical post-peak oil communities. One has done little to prepare for the shocks ahead. This lack of preparation of necessity means that only the strong survive the depredations suffered during a serious decline in the energy available to society.
A second community has been careful to make many useful adaptations before the onset of energy decline. This preparation has created a solidarity in the community and the means to shield the weakest members of that community from the worst consequences of a shrinking energy budget.
In the first community, once the initial crisis passes, resources that might have been devoted to helping the weaker members of society can now devoted to the needs and aspirations of the strong. It is a troubling conundrum that the first community, the unprepared community, has through its lack of preparation and perhaps hardheartedness created a robust cohort of survivors.
But all is not what it seems. The first community has merely been hit early by declining resources through lack of foresight and preparation. That community has made decisions about the welfare of the weak in an ad hoc, haphazard manner. The results might not be due to hardheartedness at all, but plain disorganization and poor planning.
The one advantage of the second better prepared community will turn out to be a superior sense of solidarity that may make it easier to march together down the slope of energy decline with more mercy and fewer casualties. I say there is ultimately only one advantage in this case because the second community will likely face that same choices as the first community only later.
We will be tested early or late on the limits of our compassion for the weak. How much of society's dwindling resources will we be willing to devote to the needs of those with limitations: the elderly, the infirm, the emotionally disturbed, the developmentally disabled?
In the fossil fuel era we have congratulated ourselves on our enlightened treatment of the weak, not realizing that our vast and increasing energy surplus made it possible to expand their possibilities without risking the viability of society as a whole. No doubt technology helped, too. How many books would Stephen Hawking have written without the special technologies available to the handicapped, especially those linked to the computer? How many children might have been left to wither and die in institutions were it not for new methods of instruction practiced by trained specialists who have made possible the vastly increased range of activities and even a degree of independence for some of the most profoundly handicapped among us?
But that infrastructure of people and machines implies a certain energy input from society. Even though we know that the current infrastructure can make those who are weakest among us vastly more capable of participating in society, will we be able to resist the calls from those who will say that the weak are too much of a burden on society--that it is best for society to let them wither and die and to nourish the strong instead?
There is, of course, the rather difficult problem of determining what constitutes a strong person and what constitutes a weak person. In some cases it will simply be a question of social position and life chances, or in other words, luck. If we say a strong person is one who survives and a weak person is one who does not, we are now truly back to the most brutish morality possible, i.e., that might makes right.
And, there is another consideration. There is a need to keep one's community functioning through adequate levels of nutrition, health and shelter. This is a prerequisite for helping the weaker members of society. That means weighing the more diffuse compassion that one might feel for an entire community against the tangible and immediate needs of those suffering in front of one's eyes. This balancing act will tax the souls of even the most compassionate and enlightened leaders.
The post-peak oil era will indeed test us. It will test whether our compassion merely flows from the end of a pipeline or whether we can sustain it in the depths of our hearts as the fossil fuel era draws to a close.