You know things are bad when the investment advice from the Wall Street Journal is “stock up on food.” Costco is rationing rice, wheat and cooking oil. Oil is on its way to $120/barrel and gas is headed towards $4/gallon and shows no sign of going down. The Federal Reserve is propping up our banking system using drastic measures. The dollar is crashing .  I am not an economist and don’t completely understand the implications of everything that is going on, and if anyone with a firmer grasp on these concepts wants to tell me why it’s not as bad as it looks, please do. I would love to hear it.

I don’t like talking this way or admitting this pessimism. I want to qualify it somehow, to say that it’s all going to be OK. To celebrate human ingenuity and adaptability, to look to the bright days ahead that will come once we figure our way out of this mess. To ask someone to tell me that it’s not as bad as it looks. I am resisting the urge to find a way to say, yes, things look bad, but here’s what we can do! Because I don’t really know what we can do.

I want to think that people will be outraged that 100 million more people are without food than there were six months ago or that children in Haiti are eating mud pies to stave off hunger pangs. (the linked article also mentions that the price of mud has now risen in Haiti as a result.) Then I remember being a poor child that was often hungry, occasionally to the point of malnutrition, and I remember that I noticed perfectly well that nobody cared. I know that I feel outraged in that impotent way I do and I suppose most of my readers do when we see TV pictures of suffering people. But I also know that I live in the city, and almost daily someone approaches me to tell me how their children are hungry and can I just spare a quarter, please? and I usually walk by, just like everyone else. It’s a systemic problem, right? It’s not my fault, I didn’t do it, I’m too powerless to do anything about it and anyway, it’s all I can do to keep my own family fed. Just like everyone else.

I’ve spent most of my adult life with a vague sense of living in a civilization in decline. My earliest memory of political awareness is of hearing the general outrage among my parents’ social circle over the way Reagan demolished both the advances in conservation and alternative energy made in the ’70s and the political will among the American people to do anything about the issue.  We could do better, I heard, but we chose not to.  Environmental degradation marches along, species are wiped out every day, more trees are cut down and there is less and less wild space. Ice is melting. Things in general are sliding downhill.

My response so far has been to plant more of my own food. I buy all I can locally. I don’t drive – I get in a car maybe once every six weeks. I recycle. I compost. I make my home as energy-efficient as possible. I buy almost everything used. I’ve been doing all of this for years, partly out of a sense of social responsibility, partly out of thrift, and partly out of simple habit. I make medicine out of plants I grow myself or that grow wild. I water my garden with cached rainwater. try to make a change every month to make my existence a little lighter on the earth (for this month, I’m changing my wine-buying habits – I like Southern Hemisphere wines from Australia and Chile and such, they are cheap and tasty, but they have to come so far – so from now on, it’s Pennsylvania or New York wines.)

I’m not particularly smug about any of this. I feel like it’s not enough, it’s petty stuff in the face of overwhelming problems in the world. I do it because, really, what else am I going to do? I wouldn’t be happy living any other way. I just wish more people would connect the dots between an hour long commute and little kids eating mud in Haiti. I know, I already know  – you have to drive that far because how else are you going to make money to feed your own family? It’s not your fault that our society is set up this way. You didn’t do it.

But maybe, if you really thought about it and understand the harm it has already caused, maybe you would find a way to do it differently.