I have a tendency to freak out about peak oil’s worst-case scenarios. It doesn’t happen all the time, but some days catch you on the wrong side of the sun, and my thoughts wander into gloomy territory. As I’ve written before, I nurse an unhealthy, unproductive fear that I will likely die at the makeshift-knife point of a hungry, panicked former Nexium sales rep as we struggle over scraps of food at a monthly rail depot riot. He could be sitting next to me right now at the café, this soon-to-be-once-proud man, harboring his own delusions about the housing market and the back pages of his Five Year-Planner. I can see our ultimate contest now.
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I started a Post-Carbon Buffalo group on facebook. Anyone on facebook can join, but I’m looking for people who are willing to research specific topics related to peak oil and post-carbon communities and report back to the group about their findings and initiatives that can be pushed for by the group.

To join, go here. If you’d like to be an officer, send me an e-mail, contact me on facebook, or reply to this thread.

I’d like to see this become the first step in a longer process of preparing Buffalo for the inevitable: the peak and depletion of finite, fossil fuel resources – namely, oil and natural gas. I hope to get to the point of actual meetings with officers and defined action plans by the end of the summer. Any suggestions or pledges of solidarity can be posted here or on the facebook club wall.

In other local news, Andrew Galarneau’s Buffalo Buffet has a recent post that links to a Buffalo News guide to local farmer’s markets. Andrew is a staff writer for the News and the staff advisor for Generation, the UB weekly magazine I wrote for when I still wrote for tangible publications. He is – in my biased opinion – one of the most underrated, underutilized local writers, and his site is a great source of recipes and reviews and generally good food talk. Key caption (underneath a pic of mustard greens at a local market):

Half the price of supermarket greens, and they didn’t come from three time zones away.

Think about that the next time you head to Tops or the neighborhood gouge-mart.

I’ll end today on two sources of inspiration I caught on the same front page of the New York Times last week. The first may not be seen as good news to all readers, but it at least gave me some hope that someone, somewhere at the Times is as worried about alerting the public to the oil story as I am. The Times ran a piece last Wednesday that sounded the death knell for the ex-urbs and future destruction (read: “development”) of the nation’s rural hinterlands, specifically in the far flung subdivisions of Denver – quaintly named after the farms they’ve paved over and salted. The Times story doesn’t specifically address peak oil, but it contains some great description of what the death of the suburbs looks like. It’s going down, folks. Peak oil commentators have been writing and blogging and desperately screeding for the past five years that this way of life – suburbia – we Americans view as our birthright will soon come to an end. In Denver, at least, people are starting to realize that it already has.

The Denver story should be particularly enlightening to citizens of the Queen City. Denver is a city of about 600,000 with around 3 million in the total metro area. The city has an expanding light rail system and, as the Times piece highlights, suburban residents are starting to head back downtown because their commutes have become unaffordable. Most of Denver’s population growth is relatively recent, as the city has benefited from the tech boom and all the other fossil-fuel based developments that have made the far West habitable. It’s unclear how an already-big city could conceivably handle the influx of millions of suburban refugees – assuming they don’t decide to stick it out and cling to whatever scraps of modern life are left to them out there where the buses don’t run.

Buffalo, on the other hand, is a city of just under 300,000 with another 800,000 in the metro area. The city was built with streetcar and heavy rail transit in mind and it has the capacity to accommodate a much larger population – about twice current levels at the city’s all-time peak – than the one currently shuffling down its empty streets. If Buffalo begins to revive its mass transit system – not the Metro, but its original, multi-lined, sensible passenger rail system – we can maintain a thriving citizenry and a good quality of life long after the overweight parking lots like Phoenix and Houston crumble into a patchwork of satellite villages.

Of course, everything will have to get smaller as fossil fuels deplete, and a significant population will need to work and live in the rural outlying areas if we’re going to feed ourselves in the coming decades. But it is a bit heartening to think that Buffalo could at least withstand the initial crunch, when gas prices and short-term necessity force people into their urban centers. We need to act today, though, to make sure that: a) our transportation system can accommodate large amounts of city-dwellers that can’t afford cars, and b) that we are still connected to the outlying farmland that will feed and employ us in the years to come.

The second bit of news that brightened my Wednesday was this article about the state of Florida’s land deal with U.S. Sugar:

The dream of a restored Everglades, with water flowing from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, moved a giant step closer to reality on Tuesday when the nation’s largest sugarcane producer agreed to sell all of its assets to the state and go out of business.

Under the proposed deal, Florida will pay $1.75 billion for United States Sugar, which would have six years to continue farming before turning over 187,000 acres north of Everglades National Park, along with two sugar refineries, 200 miles of railroad and other assets.

Many have made the point that U.S. Sugar probably would have gone out of business and left the Everglades anyways if it weren’t for the massive government subsidies the industry enjoys. Also, the deal gives U.S. Sugar six years’ of rent-free, possibly even tax-free business operation before they have to pull stumps. That said, this story warmed my heart. It’s easy to see a world without modern conveniences as a kind of societal hell, but the Everglades, and the hope for their return to wild, pre-industrial conditions, are one of the images that will send me on my way – no matter how bad things get – with a merry heart and a mouth full of song.

The End of Suburbia

June 23, 2008

Take an hour and check this out while it’s still available.

Baby Steps

June 21, 2008

I haven’t posted in a while. I took a break. In the previous weeks I’d read an alarming amount of alarming research on peak oil and its implications for American society. I don’t need to read anymore, at least not arguments for peak oil’s urgency as an issue; trust me, I’m alarmed.

So I took a few days to read Stephen Colbert’s new(ish) book and take stock of my priorities looking forward into the Long Emergency. I’ve worked, I’ve researched related issues like permaculture and public transportation, and, most importantly in my mind, I’ve taken a few small steps toward self-sufficiency and personal sustainability.

Step #1: I put in my two weeks’ notice at the restaurant I work for in Allentown, for a few reasons. Their business platform will be one of the least sustainable if U.S. freight costs become too expensive for goods to travel long distances by truck; well over half our produce comes from a 20-hour drive away or more. Further, the restaurant operates a meat-based menu on a scale that is sometimes scary, even for a meat-lover like myself. The amount of fossil fuel energy it takes to produce the animals we serve as meat each night is enormous when compared to the amount it takes to grow and serve crops, even forgetting transport costs. (For the record, I think animal products will and should still be a part of our diets in the coming years, but at a healthier, once-or-twice-a-week level.) Now I work at a co-op market on Elmwood. As much as I’ll miss the heat and excitement of a restaurant kitchen, if I’m going to work an hourly job it might as well be something I can support on a personal level, regardless of whether I work there.

Step #2: I bought plants. I live in an apartment that gets maybe two to three hours of direct sunlight, and that confined to a 2″ x 3′ strip of floor in the center of my living room. There is no yard, unless you count the alley that stretches between my windows and those of the apartments down the hall. (Are you watching Colbert, Lady Who Has Loud Sex? I’m sure it’s hilarious.) But a couple of potted herbs are the first steps in the process of growing more of what I need close to home.

Step #3: I put some money down on a used bike. No sentence in the language more accurately states, “I graduated with a liberal arts degree” than the previous. But the bike will help me get around, it will help me exercise, and it will keep me from smoking too much — my next project. I can’t keep going on about the environment and sustainability and local economies while paying nearly the price of a movie ticket to kill myself with tobacco grown in North Carolina every day. I’m a hypocrite, but everyone has limits.

What are you doing to prepare yourself and your community for the future?

This morning, I awoke to the smell of fried dough and the screeching hiss of helium escaping a pressurized tank. It’s that time of year again: today marked the first day of the Allentown Arts Festival and the beginning of festival season in Buffalo.

In about thirty minutes I have to go get my ass handed to me at work by the hungry festival crowds, but here are some highlights from the festival that I caught as I wandered around my block this morning:

Phill Singer (Oil Paintings)

Booth Location: Delaware Avenue, northbound side just below Allen Street.

Favorites: Hibernation, Continental Drift, Whale Watching, and the fruits and seasons series (near the bottom of the website gallery).

James Skvarch (Etchings)

Booth Location: Southbound side of Delaware near Virginia.

Favorites: Tidal Mishaps, When Main Street Whispered, The Swift and The Still, and A Pause To Consider The Arrogance of Machines.

There’s much more, like the drawings of old Buffalo by Michael S. Smith and the work of Andrew Morrison, but I’ll be late to work if I link to them all. Come down and check them out for yourselves.

Just don’t eat at my work.

Tim Russert Dies at 58

June 14, 2008

Tim Russert died today of a heart attack while doing a voiceover.

To go along with its death-of-a-newsman coverage, the AP ran a series of reactions to the death of Tim Russert. All of these would be admirable if not given by many who probably wished Russert dead long before the unexpected took its course.

I apologize in advance to his family and friends, but he wasn’t the greatest journalist in the world or American history. I don’t say that in ironic understatement, the way you would say the Milwaukee Brewers aren’t necessarily the most successful of baseball clubs. I say it because of the deep insult and dishonor that has been done by those pretending to honor and laud the man.

Let’s go punch-for-punch from the AP reaction-piece:

“I think I can invoke personal privilege to say that this news division will not be the same without his strong, clear voice. He’ll be missed as he was loved – greatly.” – Tom Brokaw, NBCNews anchor emeritus.

No quarrel here. A colleague saluting the fallen. I don’t know their personal history and it could be lip service, but I have a congenital difficulty disbelieving anything that comes out of Brokaw’s mouth.

“We have lost a beloved member of our NBC Universal family and the news world has lost one of its finest. The enormity of this loss cannot be overstated.” – NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker.

Bullshit. If the “NBC Universal family” name-drop wasn’t proof enough, the final sentence should clue you in that Zucker viewed the loss of Russert in parity with anyone else employed by him; he was a financially calculable asset lost to bad timing, not a person. It’s corporate boilerplate and no one deserves that on their headstone.

“Tim epitomized excellence in journalism and unflinching commitment to the craft. Our profession has lost a stellar journalist.” – Sylvia Smith, president of the National Press Club.

More boilerplate. I feel like if I’d ever worked a day at a professional publication she’d say the same thing about me, which is nice…ish, but it’s a sound bite. Even in your worst imaginations of Russert, even if you believe that he was a soulless careerist devoted to squeezing the lowest form of communication out of his interview subjects, not even a sound bite artist deserves a sound bite memorial from a fellow journalist.

“As the longest-serving host of the longest-running program in the history of television, he was an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades. Tim was a tough and hardworking newsman. He was always well-informed and thorough in his interviews. And he was as gregarious off the set as he was prepared on it.” – President Bush

Come on, dude. You’re a president that so notoriously hates journalists that you’ve changed the paradigm for White House reporting. Just shut the fuck up and let us honor our dead.

“There wasn’t a better interviewer in television. Not a more thoughtful analyst of our politics. And he was also one of the finest men I knew.” – Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

Less genuine than Bush. Fuck that last sentence.

“He was truly a great American who loved his family, his friends, his Buffalo Bills, and everything about politics and America. He was just a terrific guy.” – Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

I’m cool with this one. I don’t know from personal experience how “terrific” he was, but the rest at least sounds accurate to McCain’s mind.

“He delighted in scooping me and I felt the same way when I scooped him. When you slipped one past ol’ Russert, you felt as though you had hit a home run off the best pitcher in the league.” – Bob Schieffer, host of CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”

Ol’ Russert. Home run off the best pitcher in the league. I don’t know what to think about this one, except to ask, when in the last five years has either of these guys scooped the other on something worth scooping/being scooped by?

“Today, broadcast journalism lost one of its giants, who will be remembered along with names like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. The city of Buffalo has also lost its favorite son, who loved his city and its hometown team, the Bills.” – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

I wish I could somehow see how long after the news of Russert’s death reached Pelosi’s office it took her interns to Google “Tim Russert,” “Buffalo,” and “Journalism.”

I don’t want to keep going. The other quotes are as preening and full-of-shit as you could ask for. What a terrible way to send a journalist off: lying. And not even a good, hard lie someone could call out, but fake sentiment. It’s easy to befriend a dead man; he’s not there to tell people what you really think.

I never particularly sought out Russert for truth, but I enjoyed the Buffalo connection and I enjoyed watching him more than others on his network and in his medium. But I can honestly say I didn’t know much or anything about the soul of the man, where his ethics or credentials came from. And neither did many of the politicians that submitted sound bites to this article. They did it because they know Russert has a base of fans that they want to impress or enlist, and so they spoke, venally, to his honor, regardless of their actual thoughts of the man or his profession.

In other circles, we merely raise our glasses, toast the game, and go to work.

As if you needed any further proof that the Cato Institute is a completely full of shit mouthpiece used to skew debate and media coverage with asinine commentary, we now have this article from CNN.com.

In an effort to provide balanced news coverage, CNN’s Rachel Oliver took a story about Amtrak promoting itself through the proven energy efficiency per passenger-mile of rail travel over airlines or automobiles (Ch. 2 – Energy, Tables 2.4-2.6 or here) and transformed it into he-said she-said nonsense.

According to Amtrak, which was behind the event, trains are more energy-efficient than cars or planes so should be celebrated and actively encouraged as the ideal mode of transport among today’s travelers.

Attributing the information to Amtrak makes it appear as though Amtrak – an obvious financial beneficiary from increased rail travel – is the only authority claiming rail travel to be a more energy efficient mode of travel. Amtrak is, of course, highlighting and publicizing this information – but it also happens to be the truth, as the above-linked documents show.

So Rachel has shown one “side” of a non-debatable, fact-based issue. Let’s give everyone a chance, people! Balance, balance, fairness, balance:

In an April 2008 report Cato said the U.S.’s train lines “generate more greenhouse gases than the average passenger automobile,” before adding,”rail transit provides no guarantee that a city will save energy or meet greenhouse gas targets.”

Well. A fifteen-car passenger train creates more greenhouse gas than your Mazda. And Oliver doesn’t even say one train – it’s all of them. The combined greenhouse gas output of every train operating in the U.S. is greater than that of the average passenger automobile. Sounds like a reasonable counterbalance quote, don’t you think? Next we’ll hear that the homeless – once thought to be our most destitute and needy citizens – are actually okay after all, because everyone who isn’t homeless has money and a place to live.

Dodged that bullet, I guess; jester, a round for the house!

Then there’s the second half of the quote: “rail transit provides no guarantee that a city will save energy or meet greenhouse gas targets.” Well, no, it doesn’t. Rail transit also provides no guarantee that the city will not be sucked into the gaping maw of the earth’s crust as the result of a massive earthquake. It provides no guarantee that people will not simply start lighting gas stations on fire or burning truck tires in their backyard. It’s disingenuous nonsense and it’s what the American press does on a daily basis.

Demand better.