Opinion » John Rember

If I'm So Old, Why Am I Feeling So Good?

Human extinction in the best of times


My father, unlike many men, became kinder and smarter as he aged. During his last decade, he gave me a vision of old age that was benign, courageous and reconciled to mortality.

But a few years before he died, he said, "Your mother and I have lived in the best of times. We've had it better than anyone before or after us. You kids are in for big trouble."

He was born at the end of World War I, and died at the end of 2001, just after 9/11. He had dropped out of high school and gone to work because his family lost its savings when the banks failed in the Great Depression.

He had worked hard all his life, beginning as an underground miner and ending as a road construction welder and mechanic. In between he drove ski bus, trapped, built log-worm fence, and guided salmon fishermen and big game hunters.

Besides the Depression, he had witnessed the Spanish Civil War, Stalin's purges, Pearl Harbor, the Nazi Holocaust, Hiroshima and the Cuban missile crisis. He had seen hard-earned American moral authority die in Vietnam. He had watched genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda and a half-century of war in the Middle East. When Ronald Reagan was elected, he had noted that a lamprey-like upper class had stuck its many mouths onto the American body politic, and had begun to suck.

"The best of times?" I asked him.

"They were," he said. "All the spaces on the board hadn't been filled in yet. We were never wealthy, but we were able to buy a place and educate you kids and save enough to live on and travel in our old age. The game wasn't totally fixed in favor of the rich. I was always able to find a job if I needed one, and able to leave it if I wanted to. How many people have ever been able to say that?"

I replied that even during the best of his best times, almost no one could say that. Lots of people in his world had been enslaved or murdered or cheated out of everything they owned, and a good many of the rest lacked the imagination to use the freedoms they enjoyed.

He admitted he was only talking about himself and the people he had grown up with in Hailey, people who had worked themselves up from poverty and into lives of meaning, friendship and modest wealth. It was something of a miracle that he had lived his adult life free from want, free from despair and free from the paralyzing idea that the game might be fixed. He told me he had been lucky enough to be born at a time when hard work was rewarded. I was going to have to work even harder than he had worked to be as lucky as he had been.

Twenty years after that conversation, luck or its facsimile still exists in Sawtooth Valley, at least for those with a place to live, Social Security checks, gas for Costco runs (where we buy more gas) and enough firewood to get through the winter. Because of the bark-beetle infestation in Idaho forests, the best of times for firewood should last for decades.

But the rest is getting dubious. My father's words are gaining the heft of Old Testament prophecy.

We kids are in for big trouble. Good things are leaving us--youth, for one--but also good wages, and affordable education, housing and medical care. A national endgame has begun, marked by the failure of American client regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, domestic infrastructure decay, the end of cheap oil, insane military-industrial cost overruns, unsecured derivatives, congressional corruption, drug company extortion, and official lies about unemployment and inflation.

And there are bigger things in the wind than these entropic whimperings, mostly having to do with humanity's unsurpassed ability to foul its nest. Four people are alive for every one alive when my father was born. Due to that four-fold increase and a fossil-fuel economy, our climate is now hostile to Midwestern trailer parks, ski resorts, coastal cities and farms. Wars are being fought over water and natural gas. Fukushima and Three Mile Island and Chernobyl represent statistical proof that nuclear plants will all become carcinogenic somewhere in their 25,000-year radiological lifetimes. Ebola is not one of the 200 species that will go extinct today. The acidity of the oceans is heading for Coca-Cola territory. Off the coast of Siberia, methane is escaping from clathrate deposits, making the Arctic Ocean look like Lawrence Welk's bubble machine.

I don't know what my father would say about all this. "I told you so," or "I didn't know you watched Lawrence Welk," or "Times are only best if you die before they're over."

I'm old enough to coast out on luck, I think. But apocalyptic websites are predicting the end of civilization in 10 years, followed by human extinction in 2050. "If you're under 60," says one of their memes o' doom, "you'll die by violence, disease or starvation."

This sort of thing puts national monuments or Boise State University's exile from major conference games in perspective. I worry that Julie has missed the cut-off, but she says that she doesn't want to live in a world without hot showers and flush toilets anyway. Her attitude will save us money on survival rations, ammo and concrete for the bunker. When camo-wearing, typhus-ridden militias come to our door on four-wheelers, demanding our last gallon of chainsaw gas and the freeze-dried stroganoff in the crawl space, we'll give it to them, and let somebody else take the blame for ending these best of times.