Out in the public arena, people frequently twang on me for being "Mister Gloom'n'doom," or for "not offering any solutions." I find this bizarre because I never fail to present audiences with a long, explicit task list of projects that American society needs to take up in the face of the combined problems I have labeled The Long Emergency. That the audience never hears this, and then indignantly demands such instruction, only reinforces my sense that the cognitive dissonance in our culture has gone totally off the charts.
Insofar as I just returned from a college lecture road trip, and heard the same carping all over again, I conclude that it's necessary for me to spell it all out a'fresh. I think of this not so much as a roster of "solutions" but as a set of reasonable responses to a new set of circumstances. (Not everything we try to do will succeed, that is, be a "solution.") So, for those of you who are tired of wringing your hands, who would like to do something useful, or focus your attention in a purposeful way, here it is. (over the flip)
- Expand your view beyond the question of how we will run all the cars by means other than gasoline. This obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs could really prove fatal. It is especially unhelpful that so many self-proclaimed "greens" and political "progressives" are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Get this: the cars are not part of the solution (whether they run on fossil fuels, vodka, used frymaxâ„˘ oil, or cow shit). They are at the heart of the problem. And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse. The bottom line of this is: start thinking beyond the car. We have to make other arrangements for virtually all the common activities of daily life.
- We have to produce food differently. The ADM / Monsanto /
Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is heading toward its
Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils
and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on
our ability to fix this. Farming will soon return much closer to the
center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done
more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human
labor. The value-added activities associated with farming -- e.g.
making products like cheese, wine, oils -- will also have to be done
much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and
vocational opportunities for America's young people (if they can unplug
their Ipods long enough to pay attention.) It also presents huge
problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge
and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from
the dumpster of history. Get busy.
have to inhabit the terrain differently. Virtually every place in our
nation organized for car dependency is going to fail to some degree.
Quite a few places (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami....) will support only a
fraction of their current populations. We'll have to return to
traditional human ecologies at a smaller scale: villages, towns,
and cities (along with a productive rural landscape). Our small towns
are waiting to be reinhabited. Our cities will have to contract. The
cities that are composed proportionately more of suburban fabric (e.g.
Atlanta, Houston) will pose especially tough problems. Most of that
stuff will not be fixed. The loss of monetary value in suburban
property will have far-reaching ramifications. The stuff we build in
the decades ahead will have to be made of regional materials found in
nature -- as opposed to modular, snap-together, manufactured components
-- at a more modest scale. This whole process will entail enormous
demographic shifts and is liable to be turbulent. Like farming, it will
require the retrieval of skill-sets and methodologies that have been
forsaken. The graduate schools of architecture are still tragically
preoccupied with teaching Narcissism. The faculties will have to be
overthrown. Our attitudes about land-use will have to change
dramatically. The building codes and zoning laws will eventually be
abandoned and will have to be replaced with vernacular wisdom. Get busy.
have to move things and people differently. This is the sunset of Happy
Motoring (including the entire US trucking system). Get used to it.
Don't waste your society's remaining resources trying to prop up
car-and-truck dependency. Moving things and people by water and rail is
vastly more energy-efficient. Need something to do? Get involved in
restoring public transit. Let's start with railroads, and let's make
sure we electrify them so they will run on things other than fossil
fuel or, if we have to run them partly on coal-fired power plants, at
least scrub the emissions and sequester the CO2 at as few source-points
as possible. We also have to prepare our society for moving people and
things much more by water. This implies the rebuilding of
infrastructure for our harbors, and also for our inland river and canal
systems -- including the towns associated with them. The great harbor
towns, like Baltimore, Boston, and New York, can no longer devote their
waterfronts to condo sites and bikeways. We actually have to put the
piers and warehouses back in place (not to mention the sleazy
accommodations for sailors). Right now, programs are underway to
restore maritime shipping based on wind -- yes, sailing ships. It's for
real. Lots to do here. Put down your Ipod and get busy.
have to transform retail trade. The national chains that have used the
high tide of fossil fuels to contrive predatory economies-of-scale (and
kill local economies) -- they are going down. WalMart and the other
outfits will not survive the coming era of expensive, scarcer oil. They
will not be able to run the "warehouses-on-wheels" of 18-wheel
tractor-trailers incessantly circulating along the interstate highways.
Their 12,000-mile supply lines to the Asian slave-factories are also
endangered as the US and China contest for Middle East and African oil.
The local networks of commercial interdependency which these chain
stores systematically destroyed (with the public's acquiescence) will
have to be rebuilt brick-by-brick and inventory-by-inventory. This will
require rich, fine-grained, multi-layered networks of people who make,
distribute, and sell stuff (including the much-maligned "middlemen").
Don't be fooled into thinking that the Internet will replace local
retail economies. Internet shopping is totally dependent now on cheap
delivery, and delivery will no longer be cheap. It also is predicated
on electric power systems that are completely reliable. That is
something we are unlikely to enjoy in the years ahead. Do you have a
penchant for retail trade and don't want to work for a big predatory
corporation? There's lots to do here in the realm of small, local
business. Quit carping and get busy.
will have to make things again in America. However, we are going to
make less stuff. We will have fewer things to buy, fewer choices of
things. The curtain is coming down on the endless blue-light-special
shopping frenzy that has occupied the forefront of daily life in
America for decades. But we will still need household goods and things
to wear. As a practical matter, we are not going to re-live the 20th
century. The factories from America's heyday of manufacturing (1900 -
1970) were all designed for massive inputs of fossil fuel, and many of
them have already been demolished. We're going to have to make things
on a smaller scale by other means. Perhaps we will have to use more
water power. The truth is, we don't know yet how we're going to make
anything. This is something that the younger generations can put their
minds and muscles into.
- The age of
canned entertainment is coming to and end. It was fun for a while. We
liked "Citizen Kane" and the Beatles. But we're going to have to make
our own music and our own drama down the road. We're going to need
playhouses and live performance halls. We're going to need violin and
banjo players and playwrights and scenery-makers, and singers. We'll
need theater managers and stage-hands. The Internet is not going to
save canned entertainment. The Internet will not work so well if the
electricity is on the fritz half the time (or more).
have to reorganize the education system. The centralized secondary
school systems based on the yellow school bus fleets will not survive
the coming decades. The huge investments we have made in these
facilities will impede the transition out of them, but they will fail
anyway. Since we will be a less-affluent society, we probably won't be
able to replace these centralized facilities with smaller and more
equitably distributed schools, at least not right away. Personally, I
believe that the next incarnation of education will grow out of the
home schooling movement, as home schooling efforts aggregate locally
into units of more than one family. God knows what happens beyond
secondary ed. The big universities, both public and private, may not be
salvageable. And the activity of higher ed itself may engender huge
resentment by those foreclosed from it. But anyone who learns to do
long division and write a coherent paragraph will be at a great
advantage -- and, in any case, will probably out-perform today's
average college graduate. One thing for sure: teaching children
is not liable to become an obsolete line-of-work, as compared to public
relations and sports marketing. Lots to do here, and lots to think
about. Get busy, future teachers of America.
have to reorganize the medical system. The current skein of intertwined
rackets based on endless Ponzi buck passing scams will not survive the
discontinuities to come. We will probably have to return to a model of
service much closer to what used to be called "doctoring." Medical
training may also have to change as the big universities run into
trouble functioning. Doctors of the 21st century will certainly drive
fewer German cars, and there will be fewer opportunities in the
cosmetic surgery field. Let's hope that we don't slide so far back that
we forget the germ theory of disease, or the need to wash our hands, or
the fundamentals of pharmaceutical science. Lots to do here for the
- Life in the USA will have to become much more local, and virtually all the activities of everyday life will have to be re-scaled. You can state categorically that any enterprise now supersized is likely to fail -- everything from the federal government to big corporations to huge institutions. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to have food in your cupboard and people who esteem you. An entire social infrastructure of voluntary associations, co-opted by the narcotic of television, needs to be reconstructed. Local institutions for care of the helpless will have to be organized. Local politics will be much more meaningful as state governments and federal agencies slide into complete impotence. Lots of jobs here for local heroes.
So, that's the task list for now. Forgive me if I left things out. But please don't carp at me, by letter or in person, that I am not providing you with anything to think about or devote your personal energy to. If you're depressed, change your focus. Quit wishing and start doing. The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your ass and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable, competent individual resolutely able to face new circumstances.
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