This note is really just a continuation of the previous one, so read that first if you missed it. I’ll wait here.
How we’re going to change and adjust and rearrange things is, as I said last time, is cracking open one hell of a big collection of all kinds of stuff. It’s a pile that’s big, complex, and gnarly enough that there’s a tendency for people to just back away from it and avoid even letting it register in consciousness, like some kind of cheesy horror film “maybe if we pretend we don’t notice the monster it won’t kill us” strategy.
Gail Tverberg (AKA Gail the Actuary) has written a piece that does a very good job of summarizing relationships between our petroleum situation and economic and general living circumstances, and one of the itemized points in that essay is “It is easy to be influenced by the fact that everyone likes a happy ending.“. I would take that and expand the idea a little bit. I would alter that just a little and say that many people, not all, but many people like some sense of neat quick simple resolution.
There isn’t going to be any quick fix here.
I don’t think it’s presumptuous to suggest that a lot of the nonsense flying around now about “American energy independence” and “oil boom” and “the death of the myth of Peak Oil” will, in the perspective of history, sometime in the future, appear to people in some broad way a bit similar to the absurdity, in hindsight, of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain standing on an airfield tarmac on September 30, 1938, standing before a crowd and cameras and microphones and waving an infamous document and declaring that if Herr Hitler is allowed to take over part of Czechoslovakia, he promises to be a good boy. For reference, on September 1, 1939, Herr Hitler’s promise was seen in a new light as the German military stormed into Poland, and, as they say, it was on.
In short, people wanted to believe that the now infamous “Munich Agreement” resolved everything, problem solved, it’s all good. In retrospect, now, Neville Chamberlain is not well regarded with great respect, and the world had a period of almost six years of dealing with the actual reality of what Hitler was up to, plus the decades of recovery from the consequences in Europe. For us, the effects and repercussions of failing to grasp reality in our situation with petroleum and hydrocarbon deposits in general are hard to predict, but dealing with them will form a much longer episode of human history than World War II.
I can’t predict how things will work out, exactly, as people find themselves severely disappointed by the contrasts of reality and all kinds of happy horseshit in this department, or even whether or not many people will even have any idea of what’s happening.
As I sit here now, I’m planning to take a little time later and listen to the latest Kunstlercast webcast with James Howard Kunstler talking with John Norquist of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and see what those guys have to say. According to the description online, the subject of discussion is the state of the American city, the future of the Great Lakes Region, and the difficulty in overcoming decades of bad choices concerning how we inhabit the landscape of our country. That’s the stuff at hand here.
Given the basic simple ignorance or sheer misled delusions of most of the American citizenry regarding our hydrocarbons situation, it’s awfully hard to expect to get any kind of general public consensus going here in America about the effects of decades of suburban sprawl related to that, and the need to reverse. The denial and delusion about what we have to work with in petroleum is getting deep. A recent note from Steve Ludlum on the Economic Undertow blog is one of many good essays addressing this problem and fighting to bring reality back into the picture. Part of that reality is shown there; increasing costs to extract and process what’s left in diminishing returns meets a decreasing ability of people, businesses, and governments to pay for the stuff.
We need a general and wide consensus about understanding how cities worked, before people got the idea that distance no longer mattered, because they could just climb in a car and drive everywhere. We need to get some sort of mass recall understanding of what’s urban, and what’s rural, and how this is supposed to work.
That’s tricky, considering that a large portion of the population have only experienced postwar American suburban existence, and think that is normal. Couple that with being convinced that they’ve been guaranteed permanent unlimited cheap petroleum by Jesus and the US constitution to shuffle the cars, pickups, and behemoth sport utility vehicles around, and it’s hard to get them to even stop and contemplate even a whiff of a hint of an idea that the American suburban arrangement is going to become more and more dysfunctional.
So I wonder how this will come about. I suspect a large amount of very ad hoc improvisation is in the future (while lots of people bitch and freak out, shouting about their outrage that nobody warned them there could be a problem). I’m not here to offer up a great master plan. The most basic thing I can get across here is the low probability of there being any great master plan. With that comes a more general concept; what’s most important is to get enough people aware of the general circumstances to understand the need to rearrange and overhaul the general arrangement of things, to be more close and localized and regional.
Given the situation of so much existing stuff, spread out in the areas occupied by decades of the program of outward sprawl, what people have described as sunk costs along with the psychology of previous investment, it’s hard to realistically imagine anything that somehow just magically undoes all that, and reverts back to the old arrangements of urban and rural as things existed decades ago. So somehow we have to make all that sprawl work, all these areas of vast suburban construction that now occupy so much of the American landscape. That won’t be simple, quick and easy.
All of that has taken form over decades, with all the money and resources that went into it being almost impossible to account. It’s not like it can all just pack up and head back into the city. How to actually make that work is obviously going to be a challenge, and it all faces the question of what can actually be done given economic reality. It’s probably so outside of what occupants of American suburbia think of as normal that an awfully large number of people can’t quite comprehend that we might have shifts and changes like, for example, having some suburban subdivision development pod zone adapting with things like having a neighborhood general store.
Adapting and revising things, in all these areas of suburban sprawl megalopolis regions that grew outward around American cities, faces all kinds of practical and economic problems that are compounded by fundamental conceptual and attitude problems of a public locked into all kinds of dysfunctional ideas about how things are supposed to work. Along with that comes the result of the obstacle and added difficulty of something that can pretty much be assumed, that most Americans would regard everything I’m saying about this subject as just incredibly weird, so strange to them as to be regarded as bizarre. We need to get over that.
People like Peter Calthorpe and others among the New Urbanist bunch have put a lot of thought into rebuilding civic America in ways that work, not by some project of bulldozed virgin former rural land, but by reconstructing mistakes of past suburban sprawl. Step one is to get rid of the “single use” zoning laws that helped make it virtually impossible in many places to not spread everything apart so that driving for miles to do anything is virtually mandatory.
How we can get this happening is a good question. I find it interesting to see the idea of “crowdsourcing” floating around the last few years. The merits or flaws of this idea are subjects for another discussion, not one I’m interested in getting into right now.
I think it’s an indicator of how dysfunctional the established realms of Wall Street, banking and finance have become, that what had been the normal concepts of investment and capital, of surplus wealth funding useful work and endevours, have been tossed aside, in favor of phantasms of imaginary “wealth” of fabricated piles of debt, feeding casino games, and exercises in shell-game accounting trickery, that mainly only benefit the people running the scams.
This is no trivial matter.
There are all kinds of problematic topic areas where a pretty fundamental and serious question has to be “what can we afford to do?”, for a collection of reasons. Making all that even more complicated and problematic, any of this general kind of examination is almost guaranteed to run into all kinds of absurdity that somehow gets sucked into orbits around the circus of Left/Right political cliches and dogmatic posing.
As soon as anybody raises anything about of the sort of major overhaul of places and arrangments we need to do, it seems to me to be almost impossible to not get sucked into all kinds of standard cliches people have lodged in their noggins about “development”. It’s just absolutely embedded into people’s heads. It’s a rare critter who can actually break out of that. The usual cliches are easy enough to see and understand.
We have the classic that I mentioned in my last note, of the ill considered programs of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, of the “urban renewal” kind, that did far more harm than good.
There are various “downtown revitalization” efforts scattered around the United States, and some of that has actually brought a little bit of life back to some abandoned and decrepit downtown areas of American cities, but usually miss the point rather badly.
We still find people stuck in notions about “housing recovery” and “development” and “economic growth” that still revolve around more and more outward movement away from city centers into former farmland or other outer-fringe areas, into new McMansion house subdivisions, and some distance away from them, separately zoned retail commerce zones of the usual suspect corporate chain operations of retail stores and fast food emporiums, surrounded by five-lane highway roads and acres of parking lots.
It’s hard to see how any kind of established entities are going to get to grips with this stuff as needed, whether it’s expecting some government program to just fix things up, or any of the kinds of people like you’ll find on the Larry Kudlow comedy hour on CNBC chattering about “innovation and The Free Market”. This isn’t something somebody else is going to “fix”. It’s down to the rest of us understanding what’s ahead.
It’s going to be tough, with a hell of a lot to figure out and a lot of work to do, to rebuild an economy that’s functioning, local, and regional. It’s going to be much tougher if we don’t.