The End of Suburbia

June 23, 2008

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

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Over the past few days I’ve been stuck in my own head: barely following the conversations I start, trailing off my sentences, paying little or no attention to the people and events that surround me, etc.

Some who know me may say this is my natural condition. To paraphrase Lucille Bluth, I don’t care what you’re talking about and I won’t respond to it.

I’ve been obsessed with peak oil and its implications for the past week or so. I’ve spent hours, whole days even, reading articles and websites about what is in store for the industrial world in the coming years. I read until the sun came up. I took sleep breaks and then read some more. I read until I was late for work. Then I read more and showed up frazzled and out of touch (again, more so than usual) and barely able to keep up in the kitchen.

When I wasn’t reading, I fretted. I worried about my kids and if I would ever have them. I worried about their kids if I did and if they could. I worried about riots and wars and the expanded draft and green guerrillas and food shortages. Preservation of knowledge, re-learning of old skills like farming and woodworking and blacksmithing and simple printing, access to seeds and equipment. I worried about why George W. Bush’s Crawford estate is “off-the-grid” and green while Al Gore’s isn’t, and how if we all drove a Toyota Prius we could make the problem worse, and could be worse for the environment than a Hummer. Population die-offs, hospitals forced to shut down, senior citizens cut loose from expensive and energy-consuming health care. I convinced myself I would be locked up in a U.S. domestic detention center for even thinking about such things.

It might be a sort of guilty over-compensation, a pained look at time wasted, spent ignoring an issue I cared deeply about as I saw it undiscussed by my leaders – the people who were supposed to tell me what to do – and underreported by the media – the people who were supposed to tell them to tell me what to do.

Three years ago, I researched and wrote a story on peak oil for the magazine I was working for at the time, UB’s Generation. It ran on the cover of our first issue of the new school year in August 2005, but the journey really started for me at the end of the previous semester, during finals. For weeks, my father had been telling me about a guy who wrote incisive social commentary about national and local issues named James Howard Kunstler. He lived in my dad’s town, Saratoga Springs, NY.

Of course, I ignored my father; I was a media professional, for crying out loud (at $200 a month and six English elective credits), I didn’t need him pointing me in the direction of every yahoo in the Capital Region with a subscription to Harper’s and an AOL account. Then, while searching for Matt Taibbi articles to plagiarize, I happened on a Rolling Stone article by Kunstler called “The Long Emergency.”

The article is available here. Take twenty minutes and read it if you haven’t already.

I’ll wait.

As Emerson would say, I saw with new eyes.

It was the smartest thing I’d ever read. As a kid raised an hour’s march from the nearest gas station, I watched as this person I’d never heard of with no degree I knew of ripped apart everything I’d ever been told was dependable and permanent. The suburban environment was critically out of line with reality, beyond any criticism my faux-punk, post-adolescent white bread angst could have mustered. But even that had some merit. And it all made logical sense in ways none of the political or social commentary I’d read ever had before. It was like someone walking past a con artist’s mark and whispering, “There’s no shell, dumbass; take your money back.”

And so for the next seven months, I became what I’d thought I was all along: a professional journalist – though often my methodology tailed towards that of the obsessive psychotic. I read Kunstler’s book (twice) and two others on peak oil. I called Department of Energy clerks and had them send me statistics on energy production in the United States. I called professors, members of congress, industry reps, public transportation advocates. I requested a personal copy of that year’s energy bill (still waiting, DOE). I called Kunstler himself and asked him annoying questions about information I could have found elsewhere for an entire summer. I moved into my apartment in Buffalo a month before I had furniture so I could drive a hundred miles twice to and from Titusville, Pennsylvania, the town where Edwin Drake struck the first successful oil well in American history, where I attended the Titusville Oil Fest and called local Titusvillians to inquire as to the state of the local economy.

It would be the first cover story of the new year. It had to be perfect. I was possessed.

When I worked for NYPIRG that summer, I talked about peak oil on doorsteps when I was supposed to be talking about mercury poisoning. I talked about it in the car on the way to the neighborhoods we were bothering. I argued, drunkenly, endlessly about the non-importance of mercury poisoning vis-a-vis the peak oil issue with my co-workers, my friends, and anyone who would listen. I even took the ridiculous step of subscribing to a Google News Alert for the word “oil” – and I swear to you, I read every last nonsensical tidbit of Malaysian trade reporting that vacuum sucked into my inbox from start to finish.

Somewhere during the writing process, the New York Times Sunday magazine ran a cover story about the issue I’d thought no one else knew about but me.

“Mine’s going to be better,” I told my editor and the magazine’s advisor, a staff writer for the Buffalo News.

When it was all over and I’d finished my first draft, I came up with… well, basically what you’d expect from a 22-year-old kid with poor organizational skills and a tendency to curse a lot. The lead was barely readable. I used a lot of phrases like “concrete wasteland” and “the psychic torture of the suburban mindfuck.” The reporting was there, but my emotions burned out any weight the story might have carried. It was the journalistic equivalent of a NoFX B-side.

Slowly, calmly, my professor teased me off the ledge, and I came out with a story that was better than anything I’d written up to that point and is still one of my better clips. No, it was not a better-reported or a better-written story than the one that ran in the Times Mag, but Peter Maass slow-pitched the importance of the story and mainstream media coverage of peak oil is about where it was three years ago, so I still think I’m the better (bitter?) journalist. It ran prominently with two sidebars and photos I’d taken in Titusville, I did a follow-up the next week, and… nothing happened.

No widespread revolution of energy policy. No agrarian right-sizing of the American landscape. I didn’t really expect all that much, I guess (would a Gold Circle have killed you, Columbia?), but what was most distressing was that the media didn’t even follow Maass’s lead and really sink their teeth into this one. I kept writing about it, though, with increasing shrillness and sloppier discipline, until finally I was out of college and out of a writing job. Things were happening on the peak oil front, but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. In all probability we reached the peak in 2005 and passed it some time last year, but no one in a position to influence the kinds of changes we needed was saying or doing anything about it.

So I gave up, in many ways. I canceled my Google Alerts (at one point I received e-mails whenever someone published a story with the terms “oil,” “iraq,” or “amtrak” in the headline or summary). I went from reading three newspapers a day to doing the crossword a few times a week and reading only The BEAST and Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone stuff. I read and began writing fiction exclusively. And then for awhile I stopped watching, reading, or thinking about anything having to do with global issues or American politics. Every time I picked up a newspaper I’d get depressed at the lack of a serious headline involving peak oil coverage or action. Or, worse, I’d see articles in quasi-alternative publications that touched on the relevant issues but missed the boat entirely or blog posts that no possible leader would give a shit about. It was all the presidential race and the candidates weren’t talking about peak oil and no journalist was asking them to. These people had to be smarter than me, so what the hell? If they didn’t care, neither would I. It was easier to jerk off and make food and focus on personal changes I could make to assure that I wasn’t doing too much to add to the rising price of fuel. Forget the rest; maybe it would work itself out. It wasn’t until I started this blog out of sheer desperation to save some modicum of what I used to call my “chops” that I began reading anything at all on a regular basis.

And so now I’m back in it. Everyone’s obviously more interested in at least appearing to be “green” and “sustainable,” but the situation seems to have gotten worse with time. And I can’t stop thinking about it.

But panicking is wrong. Over-analyzing the worst case scenarios is wrong. Bitter resentment of the people or generations that came before me or were in a better position to do something and didn’t is wrong. Thinking I can save the world from what’s coming is wrong. Those kinds of thoughts lead to paralysis and that’s the last thing anyone needs right now.

So I’m going to do what I can and I’m going to try not to freak out. I’m just one man, which means I can’t do everything, but I can do something. But I’ll need help. Everyone does. You do and you don’t even know it. Younger generations need help. Our children need help. And their children need help. They may not be alive yet, but they need it, now.

If you’re reading this and you didn’t know anything about peak oil (and you actually clicked the links instead of just wading through this sobby, self-centered pityfest), take a deep breath. Go to sites like Local Future and The Relocalization Network and YouTube “Richard Heinberg” and learn more and take heart and find a way to do something good to mitigate what appears to be a bleak future, but not one without hope and not one without benefits, though they’ll be hard to realize at first.

If you’re reading this and you did know about peak oil and everything that comes after, leave me a comment and let me know what you’re going to do about it.

And if you made it this far and you take nothing else away from this post, just don’t read the entire two pages of LifeAfterTheOilCrash.net and try to have a good weekend. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Trust me.

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.

So. No posts for awhile. I know you’ve all been wondering what Master Caution has been up to. Mostly working, thinking, applying for jobs, getting jobs, and trying not to freak out about peak oil so much that it keeps me cuddled in the fetal position next to my hot water tank.

Here we are. A gallon of gas is nearing the cost of a pack of cigarettes. A national average of $4 a gallon, according to 60 Minutes, which is playing through the VHF snow on the one channel I get on the 28-inch TV that sits like a walrus in a toll booth in the corner of my living-slash-bedroom-slash-office. I miswrote, actually: a gallon of gas would be approaching the cost of a pack of cigarettes if the recent New York tax hike hadn’t gone through. A pack of smokes is now equivalent to an hour of work at minimum wage. I tell myself it will make me quit, but I doubt it. At best, I can hope that it will keep me from bumming out cigarettes to the “only smoke when I drink”-ers.

My old editor at Generation came into town last night. “I quit smoking,” he said, as he smoked one of my cigarettes outside the bar. “I was shocked and appalled at how easy it was.”

Me too.

While I’ve been a smoker for over ten years now, I haven’t owned a car since December 3, 2005. I know the date for two reasons: my car, my beautiful Subaru Legacy Outback, was totaled on the street in front of my house. There was a lot of paperwork to fill out. Filling in the “date of collision” has commit the event to my memory. Secondly, the date is a part of the best and worst 9/11 joke I’ve ever heard, depending on where you sit. Taylor Negron. The Aristocrats. If I could find the video (help?) I’d post it. And I can’t tell it here. It’s just not that kind of a joke. But the next time you watch it, if you watch it, look for Taylor Negron near the end or during the credits. I can’t remember which.

Sorry.

At any rate, the date is burned into my memory and life. I’ve even started an informal holiday of sorts. I don’t do anything serious on December 3. If anyone asks, I tell them it’s a religious holiday. If they ask which one, I say, “It’s December Third!” Which probably leads to confusion on their part. “What? Is that like an orthodox thing? Is this guy fucking with me? What sort of holiday mandates the consumption of whiskey-root beer floats?”

The point.

Cars. I haven’t had one since December 3, 2005. (Gesundheit, lady-who-has-loud-sex-across-the-alley.) And I’ve enjoyed the shift. I travel by train or bus. It takes a lot more planning, but every voyage feels like a field trip. I walk everywhere else. I come in contact with other human beings and with nature. Sometimes that means trudging through eighteen inches of snow or sprinting through violent thunderstorms. Most days, though, it just means getting to where I need to go, without being beholden to the costs of gasoline or automobile maintenance.

Of course, the places I need to go are closer than the places I went when I went wherever I wanted to go, back when having a car made sense to me. And I can’t as many people or goods with me as I used to. Grocery shopping has become difficult at times and impossible at others. But I’ve gotten to know my neighborhoods. I’ve been forced to look for food closer to my home, forcing me to look closer at my home and its immediate surroundings in order to survive on more than beer and whatever I scrounge from work.

I’ve had to change my idea of a good neighborhood. According to walkscore.com, my addresses since 12/3 have received a rating of 52, 83, 82, 77, and (currently) 91 out of 100. All this in comparison to my house, my home, the ex-urban Rivendell that I loved and bled and grew up in and for which I rarely go a day without singing a silent boxcar spiritual, which rates a 5. (I still love you, yellow lunch box, stuck in the throat of Dolphin Drive from both ends like a swallowed pill.)

I didn’t know then what I know now. That gasoline prices will never go down. That even if they do, it will be temporary and more damaging than if prices tripled tomorrow. That the world has reached the point where it has pumped the most oil out of the ground that it ever has, that it ever will. And that from here on out, things will get tougher for the new owners of my yellow lunch box and everyone else who lives in a lunch box just like mine. They will find less time for leisure and television. They will need to find new ways of getting work, food, medicine, electricity, candles, mail, flowers, water, clothing, and a host of other necessities, perceived and actual. They will find their government more and more occupied by dangerous and consuming wars over the last of what’s left of our planet’s resources–and they will need their government to win. Many will die–and they will need to die for others to live.

Or maybe not. Maybe hydrogen isn’t as impossible as it seems. Maybe suburban families will begin converting their massive grass yards into the farmland they were meant to be. They’ll stick to the neighborhood and trade their minivans for milk cows and draft horses. Or they’ll move back to the abandoned cities, and sell their old homes to the state to be destroyed, ploughed, subsidized, and made valuable again by the farmers that sold suburban developers the land to in the first place. I don’t know where we’ll put them when they get here, but…

Ugh. Fuck it. It will probably be ugly. In twenty years I’m going to get stabbed in the neck over a loaf of bread by a former Reagan Youth leader and I won’t even have the chance to tell him I’d told him so.

Jesus, who wants to end on that note? This was supposed to be a much more focused post than you normally see here, but apparently all I’m good for today is devolving into this kind of nonsense. But hey, it’s Sunday. I don’t have God anymore, but we all need someplace to speak in tongues for a few hours a week.

I’ll get back to this later tonight. Until then, what are you doing about peak oil?

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.

Acid Rainbow

March 25, 2008

The end of a day spent reading several newspapers, sifting through hundreds of blog posts, discussion boards, news archives, making phone calls, asking questions– and then to realize I haven’t really learned much.

I guess an interesting set of global energy consumption charts will have to do for now. Read the rest of this entry »

Arthur C. Clarke

In the swirl of campaign coverage and Iraq War anniversary articles, I missed an important passing: Arthur C. Clarke died on Wednesday at the age of 90.

NY Times obit here SF Gate here,
tributes by fellow authors and scientists here and here, and fan site here.