Wednesday, November 03, 2010
The party of unchanging hopelessness won big from coast to coast last night, not realizing that they themselves are agents of change, much less how their anger and desperation provide hope for a sane minority.
Pay no attention to the lunatics behind the curtain. The price of crude has crept up to $85 a barrel this morning without anyone noticing. We need to do something quickly. The clowns and villains of D.C. are not going to do anything to help us, as they are only capable of getting in the way.
But what should we do? We have every reason to give way to despair in the manner of James Howard Kunstler, but despair violates my religious principles. Into the breach steps Jeff Vail, a Colorado business litigation and personal injury attorney, with a presentation at a conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas called "Re-Imagining Suburbia."
Vail offers hope, and I'm still trying to figure out after thinking on it for a couple days if it's what Barack Obama would call "realistic" or Mr. Kunstler would call "a pipe dream." Vail is certainly right about one thing: having built suburbia (which Kunstler calls the greatest squandering of resources since the world began), we're stuck with it. Then he asks what we can do to make it better.
I don't doubt that the "commuting problem" could be largely remediated by van-pooling and mass transit, and that those things will play an increasingly significant role in mitigating if not solving our energy resource crises in the near future. It's likely that suburbia could become a net energy exporter rather than an energy drain if we were to work toward that goal. Marin County, King County, even Orange County, could even become net food exporters rather than remaining the enormous food importers they are now. And while Vail doesn't mention it, a combustible cash crop might conceivably go a long way toward helping with the financial crisis in which millions of suburban dwellers now find themselves entangled. None of this would transform the disaster of suburbia, early 21st-century style into Utopia, but an approach such as he outlines would help a great deal.
The problem with Vail's presentation is that he never asks how likely any of this is. For example, he addresses the issue of centralized versus de-centralized modes of distribution without ever bringing up the abolition of single-use zoning regulations that would be necessary to enable accomplishing what he has in mind, other than to mention that such things are "too expensive" for the national and local authorities to maintain into the future. Likewise, he airily dismisses the nation-state as a thing of the past, asserting that it's being replaced by a "market-state." But I think he should talk to Sarah Palin about that.
What I'm saying is that determining whether Jeff Vail's proposals are "reality" or a "pipe dream" is a political question -- profoundly political. Politics in this country ultimately comes down to us; will we continue to participate in our political charade, assuming we have no other choice, or are can we imagine a life built on implicit rejection of it? Are we capable of that?
When Jim Kunstler looks at Americans he sees a nation of tattooed, "overfed clowns" mindlessly hunting for bargains at WalMart. When Jeff Vail looks at us, he sees I know not what -- something other than what Kunstler sees though.
In 1510, exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther made a pilgrimage on foot from Germany to Rome, where he encountered swarms of atheistic priests cynically exploiting believers for as much loot as they could carry off. Seven years later he nailed a manifesto containing 95 theses condemning key church policies to a cathedral door in Wittenberg. Catholics in Germany were desperate at the time for something they could believe in. Some agreed with Luther, that it was time for a re-formation of dissipated old Mother Church, but others didn't, believed instead that they needed to "hold that line," and many died in the offing.
I think Jeff Vail should walk from Colorado to Washington, D.C.
I used to teach in a crappy high school district, with more than its share of half-assed, lazy teachers, and run by an incompetent, highly politicized administration. Naturally, most of the students were pretty crappy too. But I used to look at them and see people with abilities they didn't know they had -- the ability of easy bilingualism, for example. And I would tell them, "Look, you're capable of doing much better things than what you're doing now." Some of them took it to heart, and a few of them did eventually do themselves a favor and unlocked a bit of their untapped potential.
What I'm saying is all it takes is a few.