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.

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.

Oil depletion is real and in an effort to avoid chaos as the supply of such a globally important resource dwindles, cities across the U.S. have begun to adopt an oil depletion protocol, a set of rules for reduction of demand and peaceful distribution of supply.

Portland and San Francisco have already adopted protocols of their own. Buffalo should, too.

We would need a lot of work. As recently as 1950, Buffalo had abundant public transportation. Rail lines ran throughout the city and were a major source of transportation for both city-dwellers and suburbanites. The vast majority of these lines have been paved over to make way for the now-tragic automobile, but they can be rebuilt, to a degree, if we act quickly. Increased rail transportation will not keep us going indefinitely, but it can serve to mitigate the effects of high fuel prices and provide for an efficient method of using what’s left of our fossil fuel reserves.

Increased rail service would also ease the problem of food distribution. Buffalo still has vibrant agricultural areas located nearby. We need to connect to these areas through a viable system of freight transit to prepare for a future where diesel-powered trucking is no longer sustainable.

This is not nostalgia; it is necessity. If Buffalo is to survive the future, our leaders need to adopt policies to ensure that we have one. They need to be nudged – hard.

Posted below is a version of the sample letter oil depletion protocol advocates recommend you send to your elected officials. I sent this to Mayor Byron Brown yesterday. We need more people sending more letters to more officials throughout the city, state, and federal government. Only through concentrated effort can we reach a critical mass where anyone actually does anything.

To The Honorable Mayor Byron Brown,

I am writing to express my concern about our systemic dependence on oil and its by-products, and how the forthcoming depletion in global oil production will affect everything from transportation to agriculture to technology. I also urge you to support the adoption of the Oil Depletion Protocol, which is designed to mitigate these effects.

Over the past century, industrialized nations such as ours have achieved economic prosperity due mostly to easily accessible and inexpensive oil – in fact, our modern industrial way of life is based upon having a sustained and abundant supply of cheap and nonrenewable petroleum. This being the case, we have developed an unsustainable dependence on oil and its by-products, and have thus come to a point in history where our survival is threatened by the very thing that allowed us to come this far.

The era of cheap and abundant oil is over. Peak Oil is on the horizon, whether it be now, in 2 years, or by 2030. Experts worldwide stress the importance of early and sustained preparation, pointing to the fact that there is not currently any energy source available that can fully substitute for petroleum. The time is now to seriously consider our options and take appropriate action to prepare for an energy-constrained world.

One such action that I strongly encourage you to take is the endorsement and adoption of the Oil Depletion Protocol, an international agreement whereby nations of the world agree to reduce their oil dependence by about 2.5 percent per year. As Peak Oil approaches, reducing our dependence on oil will not be an option: it will be forced upon us whether we are prepared for it or not. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that we begin now to gradually wean ourselves off of oil. The Oil Depletion Protocol allows us to do just this. If the entire world adopted the Protocol, global consumption of oil would decline gradually and predictably, thus stabilizing prices, preserving the resource base, and reducing competition for remaining supplies.

Larger cities like Portland and San Francisco and many others have already adopted various forms of the Protocol and some have begun to enact their measurements. In Buffalo, with our smaller population numbers, our tradition of public transportation, and available local farmland, I believe the process can be easier with proper leadership. I know Buffalo can commit itself to this challenge and succeed. I encourage you to visit the Oil Depletion Protocol website, http://www.oildepletionprotocol.org for more information on how the Protocol will work and how governments and citizens of the world can adopt it.


Jacob Drum
Allentown, Buffalo

Send your own version of this letter to as many elected officials as you can. I sent mine via e-mail because I don’t have a printer, but you should send a real paper-copy letter. I’ve worked in political offices and I know that this is much more effective than phone calls or e-mails. Those mostly get logged and ignored. Real snail-mail letters get read, at least, by somebody.

Make it happen.

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.