Monday, October 17, 2011


The summer and early fall have found this space largely neglected, as I consider guest posts from fellow writers and wait for news to emerge.

The title of this post does not refer to travel, but detours from my usual habits. The first detour is self-publication, which I have generally avoided in order to benefit from editorial judgment. The second detour is speculative fiction, which I have never attempted outside of the story below.

My reason for posting the story below is to make it available for possible inclusion in an anthology of Peak Oil-related fiction to be edited by John Michael Greer, a prolific author, Master Organic Gardener and blogger behind The Archdruid Report. By no means do I share all of Mr. Greer's ideas, and he graciously does not expect that of anyone; in fact, his work has added to my vocabulary the word "dissensus" and reminded me of the utility of multiple and often conflicting opinions. I find myself most in agreement with him regarding the necessity of acknowledging and addressing the finitude of global resources, including but not limited to oil, and preparing to live with increasingly obvious limitations.

With this in mind I present below my story "The Urgent, the Necessary," which runs about 2,500 words.

Thank you for whatever attention you care to give the piece.

The waiting is over. Whatever they contain, the quarterly performance reviews have been distributed. Besides the relief of no longer waiting, there’s a certain entertainment value in the distribution ritual. Like any number of other rituals, it is aggressively outdated, drawing on the paraphernalia of earlier times. At the end of the appointed work day, the Director himself, like his predecessors stooped and gone gray in a handful of years, oscillates among our workstations in alphabetical order rather than seniority, passing out envelopes signed across the left half of the seal and sealed again sealed with wax on the right. The specifications for this procedure must be guarded among files at a higher level of access, or successive directors have come to believe that they are, and do not question them.

While the Director’s ritual is a public performance, each of us greets the envelope with a private counterpart. Some tuck it into a pocket, or lay it slowly in a briefcase. A few crumple their envelopes, violating the folds, or grasp them by one end, like a knife handle, and hold them that that way as they walk out the door. Analyst Perez sets his unopened envelope face-up on the desk and takes out a bottle of something brown and strong to toast the contents, as if he were propitiating an unknown god. On more than one occasion others have helped him continue the ceremony after work. Analyst Barton tucks the envelope into her brassiere.

Because our actions vary no more than the Director’s, there is no apparently no correlation between the handling of the reports and what the handlers expect to read. “Apparently” is all that can be said, because we never discuss our reviews. There are too many other topics. On the way out this evening, or tomorrow morning, we will discuss the weather, as a matter of course, and as a factor in our work. We discuss family, sports, love lives or lack thereof, and even money. All of our small talk circles around a larger silence.

My ritual before not discussing my review—such as it is—consists of setting the envelope under a paperweight and waiting for my colleagues to leave. Then I slide it out from under the paperweight with my left hand, the one I could live without if the contents burned or shredded it, a less painful outcome than losing my position and descending from subject to object of energy calculations. I let the chunk of crystal resist, even turn over as the envelope comes free at the usual thirty-degree angle. It is long past time to think of imitating a magician pulling a tablecloth from under place settings. The bones that already are revealing themselves, precocious fossils emerging from the erosion of flesh, tell me as much. Such talents as I possess lie elsewhere.

At this point, when the envelope is cantilevered like a fishing pole, a diving board, a future over uncertainty, I tear open a corner and insert my right index finger. A letter opener seems too impersonal for the text that will extend my tenure for another three months or end it forever. Though I might be difficult to replace, leaving my successor with a steep learning curve, I am by no means indispensable. Analyst Montrose came to believe that he was, with predictable results, and he was widely acknowledged as the most brilliant of us all. Six years ago, on a hangover day when he merely skimmed his data sheets rather than read them cell by cell, he missed a sudden dip in projected supply and did not activate the protocol for issuing a shortage alert. The official explanation is hidden in thickets of polysyllables, saving face for the rest of us, but everyone knows the results as the Atlanta Gas Riot. When last I heard he was shining shoes near the ruins of the St. Louis Arch.

I raggedly open the flap and let the contents fall onto the desktop. At this time of day the landing is audible.

I withdraw the review and unfold it in two steady motions. Perhaps something of this magnitude in my life, if no one else’s, should blossom like a paper flower in water, or perhaps it should be unveiled like a statue. It doesn’t; it isn’t. Instead, my recent past and near future disclose themselves as marks on a page. This time, though, the review runs to two pages: along with the usual quantitative section and its twenty items, the optional qualitative section continues at great length. The comments are handwritten in the Director’s poor script, learned when almost everyone had a computer. Yet, like the rest of this ceremony, these comments are hallowed by obsolescence. All that remains for me is to sign the review and indicate my agreement, or at least my acquiescence, a final antiquated touch.

Deciding whether to sign seems to call for no less care than any other part of my work, but the habits of analysis do not end with the turn of a clock’s hand as the workday closes. In the last few hours terawatts of energy have in effect flowed through my synapses as I’ve allocated them according to source and destination. No thought, no drop, should be wasted.

That was the goal, the theoretical ideal or omega point toward which our training was directed. No shortages, no complaints, no surpluses that produced regional disparities in allowed energy use. Whither gasoline and gasoline? Where could brownouts settle and blackouts roll with the smallest losses of life and property?

Our performance could never attain perfection, as our instructors were the first to admit, but we were charged all day, every day with reducing the distance between the real and the ideal: the asymptotic null, better known as Zeno’s arrow forever approaching but never reaching its target.

But arrows reach their targets as we never can. The archer aims at what lies before his eyes and only an instant separates his intent and his action. The target can only move or be moved so far in that time. We have fewer options. As the image of a star conveys only how that star appeared light years ago, the data at our disposal summarized a state of affairs that had already changed. Populations shift, firms expand and contract, or they arise and vanish like bubbles.

We could only hope to minimize the damage, like goalkeepers. Also like goalkeepers, we were given equipment, and our pay was based on performance. We’ve always paid for our gasoline and electricity like everyone else, but it took little from our sizeable salaries. In my first years, when cars were still common, I took drives in the country with no destination in mind. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the speed and freedom, or the illusion of it, and the envious looks. Those were youthful indiscretions. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. Whatever they were, at some point in life a man has to stop working at cross-purposes with himself. I returned to doing a good job instead of having one.

All things old are new again: I circled back to the ethos of our charter class of employees at the Energy Distribution Agency. Once the climate warmed unto volatility, floods competed with droughts and stable conditions disappeared. Even rented experts would no longer testify that these were only cyclical variations of Earth and Sun, or that we had the fuel to make and run machines that would rescue us, fetishes engineered to the tightest tolerances. At that point things were not as they had been; science began to shape policy. We were recruited from the best universities, and our pictures appeared in magazines, and on websites. A newspaper called us “Stars of an age of limits,” and a business journal feature story on us bore the headline “Scouts on the Pareto Frontier.” We were celebrities, or as close to it as a person could get without singing or acting, and for people who didn’t act or sing we were paid very well.

In spite of our means, though, many of us did not marry, as I didn’t. This used to seem like coincidence, a small random cluster, but over time the pattern continued as our numbers grew, and as vacancies were filled. What started out as a prestigious job turned into a vocation, and some of us even spoke of it as a calling. Something larger than our private happiness was at stake.

This sense of vocation, or a penumbra of it, forces me to read and reread the evaluation like a sacred text. As with parsing data, I believe reading the comments hard and long enough should allow significations and shades of meaning to emerge and guide my next quarter’s work, as others have discerned courses of in tossed sticks, tea leaves or the entrails of a bird. Evidence for this belief waxes and wanes, or slips just beyond the horizon. Whatever I believe, it is certain that much of Arizona and New Mexico, and large portions of Texas, depend on me. All there are strangers I have made a point of not meeting or corresponding with. Personal acquaintance would cloud my judgment.

Evaluating the evaluation, I find that the quantitative section neither pleases nor surprises me. Shortages and complaints are up. So, too, are temporary surpluses, though they are resolved quickly enough; later records usually show that populations have declined as some leave for land to farm, or a place closer to work. But there is no getting around the fact that my overall efficiency ratings are down. No business has closed, no hospital blacked out without warning, no one left without supplies and turned to leather in the Western air. (I’ve seen pictures of what happened in Laughlin, and read several accounts. Analyst Burton hanged himself before he could be dismissed.)

The incident report section is filled with numbered entries, and incidents are never good. The larger events are accompanied by citizen complaints and bad press. Mine include browning out parts of the Phoenix area, which people don’t call the Valley of the Sun that much anymore, to keep electricity going to Tucson. I sacrificed retail in favor of homes both times, but next time my decision could down to homes versus homes. Or hospital versus hospital. The existing backup generators are aging, and replacements are slow to come online. But that is another day’s set of calculations.

From the ink thickets of the comments section arise a few phrases I haven’t seen since my grade school report cards, such as “seems distracted,” “a slowing of response time,” “appears to be engaging in non-work activities.” The latter go unspecified.

Signing off on these comments, on the report as a whole, would take only a stroke of the pen. Everyone goes through peaks and valleys of productivity, and in our training we were told to expect as much. It is only necessary to acknowledge the troughs, consent to a refresher course or two, and commit to improving performance. Then all is forgiven.

Yet this time I will not seek forgiveness, as there is nothing to be forgiven. At this point in my career it is not a matter of pride: analysts either outgrow their enfant terrible stage or move into the private sector. All that prevents me from signing signature is a regard for the facts. This, too, might amount to a flaw, but it is less self-indulgence than an occupational hazard. We are all deformed by our occupations, and perhaps our greatest choice is how to be deformed. Rightly or wrongly, I have chosen to be deformed by paying attention, and by holding fast to what I see.

The facts behind the evaluation apparently do not fit in its boxes. The largest incidents reported occurred on days when I most strictly applied the Southwest Distribution Equation. On days with smaller incidents, or none, I went to the edge of my discretionary range and sometimes beyond it. Too many factors lie outside the equation, or the available statistics are out of date. Households are growing larger near the main roads and power lines; a glance at yards and sidewalk on a mild day show as much. The gas and electricity have to follow them.

There is only so much we can do for the subdivision hold-outs. As if this weren’t enough, the tappers have found ways around the pipelines’ sensors, and hijackers more often than not outgun the armed guards on tanker trucks. After drugs were legalized the cartels had to diversify. What this means to me is that on any given day gas and supplies are overstated by five to ten percent. One day last year the difference reached twenty percent, and the Director took the next week off on the advice of his physician, in the sense of the word meaning press office.

My memos have covered my reservations, and confessed my furthest detours into discretion. When there is a reply, in eleven to twelve percent of the instances, my proposals are categorized as denied, taken under consideration, or presently unfeasible. A fourth category, adopted, exists exclusively in theory. I once wrote a memo inquiring as to the ultimate purpose of the equation, if it might involve something other than the allocation of energy, such as the appearance of allocating energy to prevent panic. Eighteen months later, this memo received no reply. Such replies as came noted that the issues I mentioned fell under the jurisdiction of the Review Committee, whose mandate was to review from time to time the regional equations. From time to time they did, those times lengthening, before being de-funded. Left behind are the formulae, templates set over conditions that fit them less and less.

With all due respect to the facts, I may initial some of the Director’s comments. I am distracted, and move slower than I should. I can lose much or all of a night’s sleep to examining news and other reports for trends, or modeling the outcomes of alternative equations.

Consulting my findings during the day is what must be meant by “non-work activity,” a point on which I will not sign off. This will require an explanation, and I will provide one, placed under a request for extra time to discuss my review.

There is no choice but to prepare the materials now, while there is no noise to distract me save the low buzz of electric current and the blood coursing past my eardrums. Tonight I will need to rest, if I can rest while knowing that what I don’t learn could change lives and fortunes, or end them. Depending on what happens, even more lives and fortunes could be in play, such as my own. The appearance of allocation might be served by a firing, an investigation, perhaps some other burnt offering to the public.

In any event, I have no children to provide for, and my own needs are few. There may be work in St. Louis.