The Golden Good

August 22, 2010

13 August 2010
Exit 40-ish, NYS Thruway, east-bound.

I fucking love McDonald’s.
I love how there are 65
people that I can see
milling around the counter,
knocking into each other
they’re so full of nothing
to do, and it still takes
the cashier two minutes to
say, “Can I help you?” because
she, like I, is so rapt or
bored with this awesome spectacle
of wasted life and time.

I love how my two
cheeseburgers and small fries
take 30 seconds to come up,
because another thing I
love about Mcdonald’s is
how uniform the burgers
and fries are. My meal
tastes exactly the way it
did when I ate it
while waiting for a haircut
in the Latham Circle Mall,
200 miles away,
over five years ago.

I love how the food here
reminds me of times in
my life that were (by the
debatable logic of memory)
better than my life is
now. I love how happy
the meal is. I love how
sad I will be in a half
hour. I love how I’m
not even done with my
second cheeseburger and I
already have heartburn.

I love the way the
fries make the car
smell, and that in two
days when I go back
into the car to grab
something, it will still
smell that way, and I’ll
go, “Oh yeah…”

I love how the fries
taste like everything. The fries
taste like the fries. The
fries taste like the straw
wrappers. The fries taste like
the plastic tables in the
sit-down corral. They taste
like the inside of my
mouth did before I even
ordered. They taste like I
imagine the middle finger of
the teenage cashier girl does.
They taste like McDonald’s
and everything in it, even me.

I love how inappropriately air-
conditioned it is in McDonald’s.
Like how the temperature hovers
around 40 degrees at the
doorway, then slides up to
an almost unnecessarily comfortable
70 at the counter, and then
back down to a bone-chilling
square of floor space that
invariably appears as the only
reasonable place to stand and
wait for a burger.

I love how little everyone cares. I love how little
eye contact everyone makes. I
love how frustrated I never
am in McDonald’s. I love
that McDonald’s is so
nakedly temporary. I love that
they don’t apologize for it.
It’s as though they are
challenging the bourgeoisie
snobs who hate McDonald’s
with their conscious
knowledge that McDonald’s is
not an institution designed
to remain and/or grow with
the community, and that in
five years or five days if
the numbers don’t work–
or even if they do but there
are too many bitchy post-adolescent
shift managers making
demands about benefits–
corporate will call the
motor pool, they’ll back a
semi up to the loading
doors, grab the fryers, mail
the checks and GHOST.
When you think of McDonald’s,
think of Ladybird Obama in
an argument with a well-dressed
lawyer who never responds
except to remind her
that she is going to die.

Or don’t. No, think of
the burgers. (I told you:
45 minutes later and I’m an
unfocused pile of miserable.)
Think of the fries.
Think of the naps you’ll
take afterwards.
Think of the farmers you
aren’t supporting. Think of
the toys. Think of how difficult
it is to reconcile the food with
any other experience you are
capable of having. Think of
the future. Think of the
parents and kids and the kids
with kids that are
supported and represented by
McDonald’s. Think of the buns.
Think of the ball pit. Think
of the marketing genius,
the successful organism,
the feast. Think of the ease.
Think of the simplicity.
Think of the memories,
the golden good.

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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?

Grow Your Own

June 13, 2008

Food prices rose 0.3 percent over the past month, according to the Associated Press via the Buffalo News.

The recent increase is part of a larger trend linked to the increase in oil and natural gas prices. As the world passes the global oil production peak (which many believe occurred in 2005 or 2006), prices will continue to rise and our current food distribution infrastructure – with produce and meats trucked over vast distances from farm to grocery – will no longer be a viable option. Food supplies will diminish as inputs derived from oil and natural gas – such as gas-powered farm machinery and methane-based fertilizers – become increasingly scarce and expensive. (Natural gas will peak shortly after oil, and unlike oil depletion, it will not be a gradual decline in production.)

During World War II, the U.S. began a Victory Garden campaign to ease the burden of military spending on food for the troops. Within a matter of years, almost half the nation’s vegetables were being grown in personal and community gardens. The U.S. should return to urban and suburban agriculture and a reimagining of communities that will need to begin growing food closer to home.

The process has already started amongst people feeling the pinch of higher gas and food prices. For more information on urban agriculture and its benefits, check out Sprouts in the Sidewalk.

As the events of the global oil production peak take shape, people will be forced to live more locally, whether they want to or not. There are a many scenarios that could take place, but in order to avoid the more violent and panicked of public reactions to the crisis, we need to act today to maintain some kind of order and stability in our communities.

I believe a city like Buffalo has a chance to survive the converging crises we face, but only through concentrated and principled action. Buffalo used to be a city that could handle a sudden loss of cheap oil. Rail lines – used for freight transport, long-distance passenger lines, and more localized commuter services – ran throughout the city and its surrounding suburbs. Buffalo can do itself and its citizens (and their children) an immeasurable service by using what is left of the world’s endowment of fossil fuel resources to rebuild this rail network, to connect various areas of the city and to reconnect the city to the agricultural centers around it. These networks will become invaluable as the reality of oil depletion puts an end to the system of food transport that relies on vast, unsustainable trucking lines.

Additionally, the barren spaces of the Buffalo cityscape that were previously condemned as a special cancer of the Rust Belt region should be embraced as a gift — and then quickly demolished to make way for the city-based agricultural areas necessary for local food production. As I see it, it’s either that or the blighted abandoned homes and buildings need to be quickly renovated and retrofitted to make room for the hordes of suburban refugees that will be driven to live closer to the urban center as gas prices make it impossible for them to live where they do now. We are approaching a day where, if our current behavior continues, people will literally be going to work to make money to afford going to work. Long before it gets to this point, the people with 45-minute commutes to downtown Buffalo will need a place to live near their jobs. This could carry additional benefits in that it would free up land on the formerly agricultural exterior of the city to be reploughed and brought online as the Buffalo food sources of the future.

A good first step would be the adoption of a local oil depletion protocol. The national governments of the world don’t seem ready for such a step, so we must take over for them on a local level, as we will have to in other areas when depletion really kicks in. An oil depletion protocol would be a public, binding agreement as to how the remaining reserves of fossil fuels will be used by the city. This would create a forum for planning out the city’s future, as well as preventing panics and hoarding by confronting the problem head-on before it is too late. We must call on our leaders to begin talking seriously about this issue, with immediate action in mind. We cannot afford to lose the few years of cheap energy we have left to waste and business-as-usual consumer habits.

This will be hard work, but there are able bodies in this city. It’s a city of workers, many of which haven’t had anything valid or valuable to work on for some time. If Buffalo is lucky in any regard, it is in this: the spirit of the city is one that tends toward the maintenance of order and survival through trying times. I don’t believe that, for example, the people of a place like Phoenix could survive through what Buffalo has in the past fifty years and still come up smiling at the end of the day. Yet we have done just that, year in and year out.

We will need that spirit again, very soon.

No Blood For Water?

May 19, 2008

Make Wealth History has an eye-opening post on the conflicts that arise over access to fresh water as populations increase and sources deplete for a variety of reasons from global warming to simple human waste.

Some highlights (with my own, independently discovered sources in parentheses):

-In the past 50 years, there have been 37 armed military conflicts over freshwater access (PDFPacific Institute)

-For more than 200 days of the year, China’s Yellow River dries up before reaching the sea (Earth Policy Institute)

-Farming uses 80% of America’s water supply and the government subsidizes agriculture’s water use to the tune of $3 billion per year (I got smaller numbers from the USGS here and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development [OECD] on page 2 of a PDF here)

-“If you flushed a toilet today, you used more water in that one flush that 1 in 5 of the world’s people use in a whole day.” (Not sure where this is from or how to verify it – help?)

Read the full story at Make Wealth History here.