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Entries in james kunstler (7)

Wednesday
Aug252010

The Intersection

Devoted readers of this journal probably know that I really am not a big fan of technology, and that my general attitude toward it is that I like it enough if I can wrangle something creative out of it. Some will recall the old story about when I was a kid and managed to take my first bike apart as much as I could, only to be like a deer in the headlights when instructed to put it back together. That was perhaps the first instance showing my lack of aptitude for coping with material things and technology. That has been borne out many times since.

But this summer I got my newest computer—my third since about this time in 2001—and have plunged into new programs and even new roles as I embrace podcasting for Jubilee Economics Ministries, and have done an extensive site rebuild with them, bringing them into the social media age. All that, considering that up till earlier this year I knew quite little about those options. It has indeed been a change of attitude, particularly since I rode my old computer into the ground it seems, with it not powering on at all now, a scant week or two after I got this new iMac. I had really ambivalent feelings about computers and the digital life. But a funny thing happened this year when JEM needed to find a way to spread their word farther than they were able, I happened to be in the office and had at least some suggestions.

It does help having a new machine with programs that output contemporary files and media. I do like this thing, particularly since at least my old computer had the good sense to just die when its replacement came, helping make a decision for me. Kelli has taken the first machine I got in 2001 as a replacement for her own iBook that died in the spring of this year. She is bracing for a new Macbook or something. Along with this new machine I needed to get a new audio interface, and therefore more preamps that I don't particularly need, but it does make a nice lean recording environment. I got Logic Pro and Peak Pro. I am quite familiar with Peak from years of sermon editing, but Logic is a new kettle of fish that I hope to have some discipline to learn.

JEM is just one use for this stuff. Now that I understand podcasting and am quite well equipped to do so, I have been pitching ideas to people about shows that might be ready for the format. I proposed a 'cast for Kelli and her fellow female ministry buddies. It would be a potentially hilarious and yet very intense look at ministry from the perspective of women in pulpits and in chaplain positions. It would be called (rather irreverently so for the conservatives who like to cite one lame line in 1st Corinthians) "Women Who Speak In Church." There are a pool of potential participants from Kelli's circles.

Another would be a lesson type program with Dr. Phil Calabrese, who has much to teach about the contents and meaning of the Urantia Book. He, after 40 years of study and reflection on the book, is among the best people in the world to do a program to spread the word. He looks at it as a scientist-mathematician who wants to see if what was said in 1955 and before was predictive of what science is uncovering today about certain cosmological relationships, archaeological discoveries, etc. If Kelli takes part, she too can share from a perspective shaped by many years of reading the book, but also as a theologian and pastor.

Those are just a couple things. Notice I didn't really say that I was involved in any of it particularly, at least not as the centerpiece of things. One of the things that is emerging is a feeling that these skills and tools need to be put to some other use than self promotion. I've worked an awful lot on JEM stuff this year, and done a site rebuild and a half. (We were going to use Wordpress like this site does, but ended up finding a kickass plan on the Squarespace infrastructure, so we dragged all the WP stuff over after a fairly complete job on WP.) A lot of time, but on reflection, maybe too little still, considering they have been asking me to write for them, or for the Streetlight newspaper, for some years now. I don't know if writing is my place with JEM; I happened to be the guy who knew enough of this web stuff to take them someplace else when the time came. The whole website in its revamped form is actually going to change the way JEM operates and presents itself. This is suitable repayment for the influence that JEM has had in my life, helping me see the world in a vastly different way in the wake of so much personal upheaval. Recall that I met Lee of JEM just a couple weeks before I got evicted in 2005, as if to say that God had some other plan, and was introducing a whole new father figure that was going to point the way for the next stage in life, now that the old one had essentially passed on that responsibility. So, the countless hours of volunteer work don't seem like much.

Not all the media work is as volunteer though. I got a few bones this summer for crafting a single page site for the writer-blogger-podcaster-polemicist James Howard Kunstler. He has two books now that are novels about the post oil future. Both are supported by one-page sites that I designed. (See World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron, the sequel.) Working for JHK is interesting because he too was highly influential, even as far back as 1998 when I was given a copy of his book, The Geography of Nowhere, which was perhaps the first real dose of social consciousness that I embraced as my own. That book and its survey of the wasted landscapes of this nation did awaken the sort of consciousness of how my world operates, the sort of consciousness that was jolted again a few years later in 2004 when I saw Kunstler in the peak oil cautionary film, The End of Suburbia—a film which I was showing in 2005, just days after I met Lee (he attended, we later collaborated on a showing of The Corporation), and days before I got evicted from my suburban home.

When I met Lee, I thought I was starting a project called EONSNOW, and rather boldly asked him to support my project. Now that seems hopelessly preposterous, being a pretty untested entity myself, and he having years and years of pastoring experience, and life experience to excel mine by double. So now, years later, it is right for me to take my place in a support role to what he is doing, even as he has allowed me a great latitude to experiment and change the plan daily. But finally, he, with the message, and I with the means to get it outside of his office,  are on to something. We're quite excited.

One of the lessons in my mens' rites of passage was that "your life is not about you." If I were to set up two poles in my life, viz. my relationship to technology and media, those poles are that I used a lot of it to be pretty self-aggrandizing and me-centered in the earlier years, and the opposite was to shed as much of it as possible and find myself disregarding the media options that I used to use, sort of like a dry drunk. Either too much or too little—a dualistic mindset that is anathema to honest spiritual progress. Either of those poles was about me whether in indulgence or in denial. It is sort of like the story of the Buddha who experimented with hermitic self-denial for several years after living the lavish life that was his birthright as a son of a royal man. Ultimately, he found the third way between the poles and embraced that.  So it goes here, I hope. I am not a businessman who plans and executes the business of web work, but I am a creative person who wants to share time and enthusiasm. Right now the business of pushing potatoes during the day makes clear the way for pushing pixels by night on a volunteer basis. JEM is now presenting the type of content I wish I had the consciousness to articulate back in 2005 when I was doing the EONSNOW stuff. The intervening years have done much to re-focus on the outer realm, but only after a lot of inner realm work. Understanding that my life is not about me is one bit of humble pie that one eventually has to live with.

Technology, such as I have to deal with in this kind of work, is a blank slate. I've certainly abused web communications in the past, and been a bad netizen. (But that has largely faded except in the Google realm where everyone's misdeeds will be saved till the end of the age of electricity.) But on to other things. JEM has a coherent and holistic message that I believe in, so I decided to jump into that flow and do my part.

I've read Parker Palmer's book Let Your Life Speak a few times now. In it he talks about how he had to face what his Quaker tradition calls "way closing" many times—rejection, failure, disappointment—so that "way will open" into new opportunity, one step closer to knowing what one is really called to do. He gave an example of how he traced his path toward being an educator. It was a seemingly odd one until he figured out how components of past interests were leading him to what he loves to do now, and finds he has the inner light and energy to lead him to do. Telling about wanting to be a pilot or an ad exec, he found the aspects of those things that left clues that perhaps were not even considered as they were happening.

For me, I considered that my past history of building plastic models demonstrated that I liked to devote myself to projects that started and stopped and involved many stages to complete—assembly, fine tuning, painting, presenting. Or that later on I got into doing cassette recordings with home made tape box "art" (now that is stretching it) with liner notes that filled most of the available space. I did that for years, and that developed into CD projects using increasingly sophisticated technology, culminating in Receiving, which was an all-digital project that aspired to the same thing as in the early days: record it, make the cover that explains it all, and package it. Getting into the website was an extension of the liner notes where every damned detail could be explained. Podcasting now is an extension of that, integrating the web and audio interests as well as the knack for developing something from pieces to a finished product on display. Other interests of mine are looking at the dynamics of relationships at the personal level, or at the larger human level, social critique, bible study and interpretation, volunteering for socially useful causes (home delivered meals, church offices) and maybe more. So right now, it makes sense to be doing this work for JEM, even if it can only be done with technologically advanced toys and tools. It seems that right now this is what I need to do, seeing how it lies at the intersection of various interests and abilities.

Thursday
Dec132007

The Exorcism (2 of 3)

Welcome to the second installment of this gripping drama about periodontal surgery. For the previous installment, skip back a few entries, or search by tag: "Dental Demons and Exorcism."

Today started off at noon when I awoke to the sounds of Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn album. Hearing a few opening notes is enough, and today I had to cut his 30 minute tune down to about 12 bars because I had just a bit over two hours to prep today to get to my next dental exorcism. So it was off to the kitchen to prepare a hearty feast, but I found I had no bacon ready to go. It was all frozen. Good thing I had some taters that I cleaned up from dinner last night but hadn't used. Breakfast was tasty but I think I copied my dog in the way it was almost inhaled instead of chewed and digested properly.

I had to get more medication, and since I am quite unexperienced with going to doctors and dentists, I don't really understand certain things like how to plan to refill prescriptions in a timely and not-rushed manner. So today, I was calling pharmacy and dentist to organize that, then ran out to get the meds, and more daringly, to run to Costco of all places on the way to the dentist's. It was all a sensible trip; it just was crammed into too tight a time, so I got to Costco and was running around like mad trying to dodge people and carts, and to find my product, which as if it knew I was in a rush, was hidden so that a few laps around the aisles were turning up nothing. I got out of there after the world's slowest checker helped get me by. Good thing Costco and the dentist are about a mile apart. So I came blazing into the dentist's office with 10 minutes to spare, a little excited and rattled from the ordeal on the way. At least I wasn't as worked up as last week when I had the car ride to ruminate and get nervous. This time, Kelli was at school and I was on my own.

At the periodontist's office they got me in and took my blood pressure reading and it was high again, no doubt due to the last minute obstacle course to Rite Aid and Costco. I actually was far more mentally prepared for today, having last week to prepare me, and having no complications since. But the BP was too high so they let me mellow for a while, and took it a few more times, then we were off. It was less chatty this time, and no humor, but it was silent and I had a chance to breathe and to think of piggies or whatever stills my mind. Then it was all business. I had a vague and unfamiliar feeling that I wanted to talk about mothers-in-law and their almost obsessive desire to have grandchildren. But I put that to rest quickly.

The work was much the same as last week, and with a few exceptions was about as smooth as then. Maybe there is less tissue in which to inject anesthetic in the lower teeth, because I seemed to feel things more this time, but it still was not agonizing or anything. I have a tongue that is a jealous protector, and every dentist has to fight it to get to the bottom in particular. This procedure required an assistant anyway, so there was one more tool or finger in there at all times, in addition to the doctor's pieces. It makes it less organized an effort though when it's time to relax or swallow, or with some cutting edges in there, not a good idea to have a gag reflex!

About an hour was all it took, same as last week. This time I went out with no gauze, and sort of wish I had, but I have the stuff on hand. I inquired about a relaxant for next week since they will do half my mouth at once, and this on the heels of the first half being done. Despite the "practice" I will have by then, they thought maybe I should relax so my BP is more acceptable and my tongue does not make such a stand against the invading army, and so he prescribed a Valium.

I got home to find Jim Kunstler's new, as-yet-unpublished book World Made By Hand on my porch. I got a proof copy for review because I did some work on his website and he asked me to make a site to promote the book itself. So this was my homework while I am convalescing, and during the slow, no work period to come. After getting my freeze pack together and rinsing a lot for a half hour (and listening to the audio of the Campbell/Moyers Power of Myth show), I started in on the book. Then, over the following five hours or so, I read about 130 pages of it like it was nothing! I had to rinse a lot today. There was a lot of bleeding. I packed it a couple times but didn't like the feeling of the gauze. So I kept rinsing and icing. I have always been quite sensitive to the bottom front teeth. They always feel to me like they are out in the open somehow, and most sensitive. So they have also been the worst affected because I was almost scared of them so I didn't apply as much care when I should have. So today, I was quite aware of them hurting rather more, but that might be because of the undue mental attention I give them when I worry about them.

Eventually, close to midnight, I got sufficiently hungry that I ate some soup and rice cakes and was happy. Then I busied myself with some dish washing and chronicling this whole thing so you, my dear reader, could enjoy it.

Sunday
Dec022007

To My Loyal Audience

Apologies to those who of my biggest, RSS-subscribing fans have been bored with the poetry as of late. I've just been bored with the endless prose format that has primarily defined my writing approach for years. And there have been some personal developments which even I deem a bit too private, though they may eventually work themselves into writings to come.

I redesigned a home page (only) for James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler's book, The Geography of Nowhere, was the thing that started my interests in social issues back in 1998. His blog in more recent years has been important in my understanding of what must happen in the age of peak oil and its decline. Along those lines, his book, The Long Emergency, unified a number of his ideas that evolved in his blogs. But he had a crappy web site for a long time. Finally, I wrote and told him so, and he asked me to help out getting the front page dialed in a bit more. I've been asked to make a promo site for his next book.

I've been reading a lot as of late. Lots of things revolving around Christianity, theology (in a wider sense), and history or politics. I continue to be a total addict to Wikipedia, which is just too cool for a guy like me who likes to meander. Stuff I've been reading in the last few months since getting liberated from the workplace:

  • The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God: A Political, Economic, and Religious Statement. David Ray Griffin, John Cobb, Jr., Richard Falk, Catherine Keller. The authors are primarily within the field of Process Theology, this takes a good look at the American rise to empire or "benevolent hegemony" or whatever nice euphemism describes our present place in the world. It comes down very hard on the US for using the power vacuum of the post-Soviet era to increase, not decrease, its commitment to militarism as a primary instrument of foreign policy. The book looks at the lie we have told ourselves in our national mythology—that we are innocently being drawn toward greatness as a superpower, but if any nation should be put in that position, it might as well be us, right? Maybe it isn't that after all. Maybe a more reasoned look shows the US has been imperial for a century and more, with certain roots back to the founding days.
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son. Henri Nouwen. Kelli got this at a book fair at her school. The price written inside the used copy was $0.75, and a damned well spent seventy five cents it was, too! This modest book of about 140 pages was just good food for the soul. Henri had to redefine his life and mission when he encountered the Rembrandt painting that depicts the homecoming and forgiveness of the wayward son, as told in the Gospel of Luke. He found that while it was most easy to identify with the wayward, reckless son, he was dared to consider himself as the jealous and dutiful son who remained at home and fulfilled all his roles, only to have his rage explode when his attentiveness was upstaged by his reckless brother's homecoming. Then, in the hardest leap for Nouwen, he found that it was his calling—and all our callings—to become the father who forgives, and celebrates the wholeness that comes from having everyone together again. The father is the ultimate spiritual destination for any of us—to reach that point where the ego is depleted from having been both sons—the reckless parts of our lives, the uptight, dutiful parts, the jealous and the angry parts—and to just accept things with compassion that arises from having "been there."
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Marcus Borg. This is another dollar well spent at the book fair. I'm just getting started on it, but enough of it is familiar from other reading of this sort. Borg is a member of the Jesus Seminar, the group that is trying to establish the actual historicity of Jesus as a human who walked the earth, and what he said or did not say. Despite being deconstructionist in such an approach, the question then is, what truth remains? He recalls a native American storyteller who began his stories with, 'I don't know if any of this actually happened, but its all true.' The point about Jesus then is not whether he said specifically this or that, or encountered this person or that, but that there is a truth beyond the details, the meaning behind the story that is still something that can speak to us now. Joseph Campbell spoke of unpacking the imagery of myth to get to the meaning beneath. Borg is working in a similar fashion. I endorse such readings of the Bible because then it has a chance to be relevant to me now. The Jesus of Sunday School can only matter for so long before he becomes a joke. But the Jesus-as-social prophet/mystic/teacher/dissident is fascinating. That Jesus I have a use for.
  • The Revelation of John. William Barclay. This is actually a part of a series on the New Testament, all from about 1960. I've decided not to hate the book of Revelation like some, and I've decided not to worship it like others seem to do. Revelation is a lot of things to different people. But it isn't what a lot of people think it is if you only know a bit about 666, and the various bits of bullshit that popular culture regurgitates in dreck like the Left Behind series. Only about a year and a half ago I wasn't convinced that the book had any good use, and it may as well be excised from the Bible. But actually it is a very hopeful book—if you understand the medium and the target of its criticism. It is really ironic that American fundamentalists are so ready to hold the book up and cite it because it is really a slam against Rome—the oppressive empire of the day. It is written from the underside of that tyranny, and seeks to assure the faithful that the worst human evils are still no match for God's power. One could imagine such a document being written in the present day by a group that feels under the boot of American imperial power—some folks in the middle east, maybe? It is a bit odd then that for Revelation to be truly understood and appreciated, you can't read it as a member of the dominant power structure, which America clearly is in a way that Rome could only dream of. So it is interesting that Americans make the biggest deal about Revelation, claiming that God's kingdom is right around the corner... I don't particularly like the Christ-as-conquerer imagery, but I do like the idea that maybe God can still best us when we deserve it. In that regard, thinking that there has to be some check on human arrogance and evil, I stand with John of Patmos. The thought that this is all there is...depresses me. Maybe there won't be a city descending from the clouds, but one has to hope this crooked, fucked up world isn't all we have to look forward to.
  • The Closing of the Western Mind. Charles Freeman. I've had this book for a couple years but finally got down to reading it and have finished about half of it. The sad irony in history is that Christianity, a noble religion in principle, was compromised from the beginning of the movement, and Paul of Tarsus' insults to the Greek philosophers didn't help. Greek thought had been refined for centuries before Paul, but he came by and demeaned it as kid's play compared to the need for faith in Christ. Paul then ushered in the closing of the western mind, and it was most solidified when the religion teamed up with empire, and what was ostensibly a nuisance and fringe player, became the religion of the empire, and even more than in its non-empire days, became quite intolerant of anything that ran contrary to its doctrine. Unfortunate, really. I think this book, while primarily a history book, is more of a cautionary book for our age. It might have taken the English Freeman to write this book, but Americans need it in a big way. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to stick your head in the sand to be a Christian. You don't need to hate and fear science. Today's fundamentalism can surely lead us to a new dark age if it gets cozy with power.
Thursday
Feb012007

Life Is All A Cruel Joke

So here I am, Mr. Peak Oil Boy who usually has been down on car culture for a few years now, and has been quite critical of self and other in regards to senseless use of fuel for needless transport. I've also uttered a harsh word or two about the failings of the suburban landscape, ala my hero James Kunstler. And I really do feel that way about a lot of things. But I am only human, not above hypocrisy or contradiction. While in 2006 I did do a good job of living some of the stuff I talk about here in this journal, some of that was done on borrowed time while I lived in a favorable situation. But that is coming to its anticipated end before the next few months are out, and it will be time to go out and get a new place to live, and by all estimation, it will be at "real" rent prices for this town, which has me downright depressed because it pretty much means my quality of life will fall because of the work that it will require to pay for a shack that is bound to be way overpriced. So the month of January was spent whoring myself out for some interviews and doing the banner hanging work that I have done on three short seasonal bursts since this time last year.

So then whattaya know but that my leading prospects (and the job I actually did score) were driving jobs? I crafted a few types of resume to whore myself out for various types of work—driving was one, audio tech boy another, social services and volunteers yet another, and some required a combination of the above. The two leading jobs that had favorable interviews were for printing shops, and their work spanned countywide. The shifts were both full time, with only a small wage differential (I got the lower one, grrrrr). Both were reasonably close to home, both within about 7 miles, and I scored the one that was only a bit more than four miles out and actually may be bikeable. I was holding out to the end for the better job, only troubled by the fact that it started two hours earlier at 7:30. They had a day they were going to start someone and the other place let me call my start day, so I set it to be after the first place, should I get that one and their better offer.

But anyway, back to the sad irony of economics, and that is that Peak Oil Boy is out there hitting the streets for about 130 miles a day, trip after trip, all day long. (At least the car is a very efficient one.) And, the other "gotcha" of it all? The primary clients tend to be architectural firms that design all this suburban garbage that I love to hate! One after another, I get to firms of all sizes, all designing a lot of the same shit, cookie cutter style. Many of them have slick offices with these sassy looking 20 something chicks who front the office but who all appear to be too good to be true, too phony for me. Many offices have that slick stainless steel/glass/birch look that everyone in that industry seems to like at once. But no matter what the details, Peak Oil Boy is driving around the county for these fucks, helping them do what they do best. Or worst, as I see it.

Man, I really ate it on this one, didn't I?

But seriously, it does actually depress me to think of it that way. This is, in its own way, worse than what I was dealing with at AV Concepts where at least I was admittedly linked to the industry somewhat from past experience. I have no interest in architecture, printing out their documents, or driving. It's just economics, man. Just that I need something, and despite combing the Craigslist ads for a month, nothing else seemed to be reasonable enough to just have me start, without having a huge list of some sort of credentials. The fact is, I really hate the prospects of most types of work out there. I wish I didn't have to get the one that puts me so at odds with myself.

This internal dilemma is heightened by the fact that I am "fighting" a losing battle at my church to reject a parking lot renewal project, and I know it's doomed. But I have other points to make with regards to how the church spends its money, and who it serves. But I am losing interest in all that since there is less and less there to do as a person who just wants to be in the "church" space to get out of the world. But my activities there of late have all led me into the "real" world while doing things for the church, making it so that the worship and educational experiences, the transcendent stuff, have been pushed aside.

So getting a job in a field that ostensibly I am opposed to just adds to the conflict within. It is depressing. And for my church situation to be in a state of meltdown over the course of the last several months adds to the strife, because there is little it seems beyond the business of doing the work I do there. So I am worried about just being able to do my job to get the money to move house this spring, and hope to sustain it, but also while realizing that what has been a long term support system is now a liability, it being a central part of my current conflict with myself. It just aint happymaking the way things add up.

Monday
May162005

Loss Of Self Empowerment

Peak Oil is daunting. We face the loss of the goods and services we use every day. We face having to do work that someone else has done for us. That might sound unnerving, and for a while, it will be. But indulge me for a while as I suggest that maybe it has done more harm than good to turn all our work and play over to them.

poster: made in china, because we needed cheap shit more than good jobsMade in China: Because we needed cheap shit instead of good jobsCorporations are unrelenting in convincing us that we need their goods or services, else our lives will fall apart. Actually, that may not be so because people had lives before corporations (B.C., I guess) and will continue to have lives after they fade away and lose their grip on most every aspect of our lives. Corporate practices have unsustainability written into their very nature. What you and I must do is imagine a life where we don't buy something because we are told to, or because our neighbor bought the same thing first. If we can be conditioned to buy, we can be conditioned to not buy. We were conditioned to buy on flimsy grounds, and we can recondition ourselves away from that for reasons that resonate in us for pure reasons of trying to preserve our humanity above all else. As the saying goes, a journey starts with the first step.

First off, let us remember American culture and corporate practices thrive on an assumption that people are stupid and can be herded like cattle. They thrive on people's desire to be part of the new and exciting. They thrive on people forgetting their integrity. They thrive on a culture they helped create: disposable culture. Seventy years ago, products were made to last because that is how things were done because it made the best sense. It still makes sense, but for a long time now, things have been made to be disposable. The euphemism we now hear and accept is "planned obsolescence." Things are made now that have little potential of being preserved for more than their planned lifespans. None of us would think of sharpening the blades on our disposable razors. We wouldn't think of reusing paper towels (or the more realistic option: use cloth towels once again). Most things are made cheaply now in part because the economy demands it. There has to be a reason for us to buy more of whatever we are using, or to get next year's model, etc. If goods were made durably in the first place, there would be less need to perpetually replace these widgets.

Even houses are made this way. One of the earlier steps away from the community based living patterns of old was to make the house itself a commodity that could be made cheaply by experts and sold to the everyman. But even in the early days, these houses were made in stylish and appealing ways, and now are regarded to be some of the most valued designs around at any price. But the house I live in is the perfectly boring standard issue suburban box. And it is not even made well! The useful lifespan of a property like mine is about 50 years. How do I know? Drive around my neighborhood and look at all the houses with significant remodel projects going on. Then compare them to the ones with no remodel work being done. My house and neighborhood were built in 1957. Coincidence? No. Not at all. These houses are not made with the same care as ones from 50 years before them. These houses were made quick and dirty all across San Diego during a boom time when we had more wealth than sense, and a desire to throw out the old simply because it was "old."

Another aspect of corporate control over our lives is the way corporations convince us that we are unable to do our own work, and that they have a solution that can do better for us. They breed the insecurity in us that leads us to trust them enough to turn over our dollars for whatever good or service they offer. One one hand, it is good for the economy because more widgets are made, and more people are employed, but what is lost is people's ability to trust themselves in their own homes. I am as victimized as anyone; I call a plumber too. I call an electrician for anything more than the most basic stuff. I hire a mechanic because I don't trust myself to do the work competently. I don't mind hiring guys because peace of mind is a good thing, but I do reflect on how somehow I have been scared by someone or something into thinking I can not do this work myself. Think for a minute about all the things you hire someone else to do that you could do yourself. And then ponder whether maybe you are losing a bit of personal pride and satisfaction by not learning to do this work yourself. Not everything out there for sale or for hire is necessarily something we need to pay for. But we are told that we should if we want it done well.

Entertainment is another centerpiece of real human living that has been distorted. I think each of us have heard grandma say "when I was your age, we didn't have television. We had to make our own fun!" Well, in a post carbon world, we might not be looking at so many films and listening to so many CDs. It will take oil to make the films and disks, and with entertainment being so slick now, it will take a lot of expense to move entertainers to far flung places to film or do tours. It will be harder to move mass produced " product." We can't rely on Jennifer Lopez or whatever popstarflavoroftheweek is to entertain us forever. We can't allow our culture to utterly fold up and disappear when all the lowest-common-denominator entertainment goes away. We might want to learn how to sing from our hearts again. We might want to learn how to express ourselves through our own efforts in the arts and drama and music. We need to know that what is in our hearts and minds is just as valid (and more so) than what we can buy at Tower, or what we can download from the iTunes Music Store. We need to relearn how to preserve our works of art on tangible media or in our community's collective memory because we can't trust that there will always be computers and the Internet to create and distribute such material around the world in a blink of an eye.

Another part of the corporate domination that flies right over most of our heads is the matter of what we throw out every day, after we have bought and paid for it. My own "a-ha!" moment came when I realized the sheer number of small plastic containers that got chucked into the trash maybe minutes after I opened them and consumed their yummy contents. I watched as small cups for yogurt, lided containers, or partitioned dishes for dips or other foods were just heaved into the bin. I shop at Costco and rarely cart my groceries home in 15 bags, but many of them come in what actually are good containers that can be reused. Well, each time I buy this stuff, I have more, so I needed to find a use for the stuff. My wife and I started to buy bulk foods more. She took a liking to baking bread from scratch. All these little containers helped store flour, seasonings, sugar, seeds, nuts, and whatever else came to mind. With her interest in baking, we cut out the need for store bought bread, and also cut out the "need" to buy the brand name Ziplock or Glad or Rubbermaid containers that do the same thing as our cast off yogurt and sour cream containers now do. And frankly, these product containers are actually better products than the stuff that can be bought from a brand name. Pardon the misleading labels, but it's working fine for me.

Corporations and their practices rely on us to forget our own inventiveness, resourcefulness, community potential, and the worth of our own labor or thought. I don't stall for a minute in thinking that maybe that business ethic of making people feel helpless has contributed to a range of social problems. We could watch how people are made to feel they must pay for all of their daily needs and wants, and must run to keep up with that system by struggling to get a "good" job that gives them the money to do all this stuff. Well, slowly, people are going to have to rediscover their own potential, and the shared potential of their community. What do we work for if not to meet our needs? And why did we let big business tell us we could not meet our own needs without their "help"? If our economy is founded on pressing more and more people into debilitating insecurity and self doubt, then what are we really asking for when we say we want economic growth? I don't think we can keep this up for much longer. Our system is already taxed beyond belief, and is already in decay in many places. America was not built on insecurity and self loathing, but it could fall apart if we have too much of the stuff.

Wednesday
May042005

War On The Suburbs

Suburbia isn't what it used to beI've heard it said while doing my peak oil research that the only thing that would be as bad or worse than running out of oil for human consumption would be not running out of oil. The obvious response to that is usually the expected one: without oil, we'd be up shit creek, so how could someone say that unless they are some leftist radical out to destroy America? Well, you only need to contemplate that if the availability of oil continues on in the way we now know, all our problems with resource wars, global pollution and decay, corporate scandals, political funny business, and—worst of all—rush hour traffic and fighting to get the best parking space at the gym (an amusing but sad commentary on American life).

I am periodically reading a book called "Suburban Nation" by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. This is not the polemical James Kunstler (who has a blog that is quite a riot to read, and among my core sources for such commentary as I make now), but rather is a sober and studied and very human book from New Urbanist designers and architechs who have taken some detailed looks at what makes the suburban project such a disaster for the country, in so many ways. The book celebrates and urges the return to classic towns of the sort you would expect to see on the eastern seaboard, or in more modest earlier towns, or indeed where all this classic civic design was founded: most of Europe. The authors show how the suburban project was basically created by and for various industrial and professional sectors during a time when all things old were tossed out with the trash, mostly for the sake of doing so, and not because it really improved the lives of citizens. It is well documented how Standard Oil and other companies convinced urban planners that public mass transit was old hat and should be replaced with the automobile, which was to be the standard form of personal transportation. All during the 1950s, zoning and building codes were changed specifically to wipe out most everything that didn't fit within a car-centered design plan of wide lanes, treeless streets (and even sidewalkless streets!), and freeways with their huge ramps, et cetera. Basically, the pedestrian was on his own, because modern cities were constructed in ways that mostly relegated them to second-class citizen status. The 1982 song by Missing Persons ("Walking In LA") was not really a joke song though it may have seemed so—only a nobody walks in LA! Or Houston. Or San Diego. Or Atlanta.

The chapter in Suburban Nation that I am now reading is dedicated to the matter of the loss of meaningful community space, and reminded us that our right to assemble and speak freely does require there to be places where people can actually assemble, but with more urban designs that make it hard for everyday people to gather freely (no parking costs, no building rental costs, etc.), a core component of our governmental system is in jeopardy. If meaningful and functional public space has been made illegal or too expensive to use, and people can't get there anyway, who will do the free speech and community work necessary to keep a democracy going?

(I am unabashedly ripping off the book at this point.)

The suburban model, with its reliance on the car as transportation is actually a step backwards in human civilization because it turns us into sociopaths. First off, suburbs are NOT communities. The suburbs are places that were created for people to separate out from others. The entire suburban appeal is that you can have your own little kingdom where neighbors won't bug you, and traffic won't keep you up at night, blah, blah, blah. Suburban life is actually sociopathic, and particularly, as the book points out, is motorized life. There are some examples: lane cutting, pedestrian deaths due to reckless driving, parking space and filling station snatching, parking space "lag" (the phenomenon of departing drivers taking longer to leave while being waited upon than when no one is waiting), and the ultimate: road rage taken to the point of physical violence and death. I guess we could also add in carjacking and auto theft too. Our cars and our houses have become places where we retreat to, at the same time as our physical manmade landscape is becoming increasingly devoid of places that are even worth caring about. So really, our lives have become reduced to driving between places that don't amount to much, and doing so in one of the most antisocial devices ever created! (Now I am channeling Kunstler.)

People ask me when I get on my peak oil soapbox what the solution is to that whole dilemma. When I tell them I get sneers and comments about 'that will never happen.' Well, all my reading on the failures of American "civilization" and the oil issues (and all the various intersecting fields associated with these) points to the real failure at the core of other failures being our physical manmade landscape being a Frankenstein's monster that we need to reel in. There are so many failures of the suburban development plan that its stupid, but no part of our life or politics has been left alone. When classic town and urban designs were discarded in the 40s and 50s in favor of suburban development patterns and the various corporate entities that got the greatest benefits, so went our civic life, and even our human connections. And, perhaps worst of all, this entire disaster is one that celebrates the disposability of itself!

So my idea is that because the whole global mess of oil, wars, and global debt is one that arose in America's period of extreme suburban growth, the answer to that mess is to work backwards. Well, we may not have a lot of choice. What else can we do when energy prices make it a silly proposition to drive the 40 mile commute? The 25? The 10? The 5? What else can we do when the same energy costs make it unwise to live in oversized isolated single family homes that are filled with all manner of electronic and electric devices, all consuming willy nilly with no thought of the consequences? When we are less able to get in our car and drive, we might be faced with actually having to stay in a place for longer than the time it takes to run in and do our business. Our walking or biking trips will take on more meaning. We will have to talk to people in our daily lives, and hopefully, we might find that they aren't the evil people we think they are. We might have to meet in common places with people who live nearer to us, and talk to them in order to get along. We will need to deisolate. Some say it is a step backwards to think about ditching cars and single family houses (I don't call them "homes," as they are houses only). I say it is a step forward. I think there is a lot of humanity that we have dispensed with in our daily lives that can be reclaimed when we remove the antisocial elements from our lives. They are unfortunately the same items we associate with progress, but really?

If a car is significant of progress, then why do we curse paying high gas prices, insurance, and maintenence costs? If a car is significant of progress, then why do we curse sitting in traffic, consuming away days of our lives in a totally antisocial pursuit? Why do we fight in traffic to get the best space at the parking lot, and leave nasty notes on or key the cars of the people who stole "our" space? If a car is significant of progress, then why do we feel so good when we get to a place like DisneyWorld or some town in Europe where there are none, and things are scaled in such a way that we feel somehow more human? If the car is significant of progress, then why do we allow gas hogs to be made still, something which is pressing us into ever more hostile geopolitical relations and war?

Similarly, if we live in a civilized society, what do we make of the fact that the very young and the elderly are marginalized because they can't drive, and any places of genuine socially redeeming worth are out of their reach without cars? Or what do we make of our economy which is founded basically on turning petroleum into garbage at ever increasing rates, so we can show economic "growth"? Or similarly, what is civilized about a population that feels so damned nihilistic, turning to antisocial behavior such as drugs and violence, even against family? What is civil about the fact that a friend of Kelli and I died in a murderous drug deal gone bad (he never carried arms of any sort)? What is it about our society that makes people demand to be sedated so much that people have to die for it? Why was that line of work so damned lucrative that our friend chose it over a "more respectable" professional job? (He didn't even need to; his family was supportive and his prospects were good as a college grad, but he liked adventure—could it be that he saw a day job as meaningless, making or selling widgets that no one needs?) Why is the black market for drugs so powerful? Could it be that life has gone to shit, and that is one way to recover a sense of self-determination because everything else is so canned? We say we are fighting a "war on drugs" but we put vastly more capital into creating a system of civic life and infrastructure that actually increases the demand for the stuff? I have to wonder how much the budgets for drug rehab programs are compared to the programs that build useless and culturally devoid cities, launch wars on distant nations, and the various mechanisms that drive companies to outsource and close American factories and shops, leaving more and more people without hope, leaving them to turn to whatever comfort they can eek out of life, be it drugs, or nihilistic behavior.

The War on Terror and the War on Drugs should be won by launching a war on failed civic planning and corporation malfeasance and short sightedness. We go to war for oil because we drive too damned much, partly out of genuine need, and partly out of being sold a lifestyle we don't need (a judgment arrived at based on my great grandparents' not needing this sort of life about a hundred years ago. We go to war on drugs because there is a demand. There is a demand because people are aching for their humanity back, but it is a hard slog. It is a hard slog because our lives have been handed over to corporations who make decisions for people without their consent or even knowledge. Democracy is nearly dead in America now, and the only way to get it back is to take it back, and that might mean doing some daring social experiments like trusting people again, and maybe talking to them, eating among them, and so forth. Being sociopaths is an optional thing. Being oil and drug dependent is an optional thing. But I think people need to be reminded of the alternatives to what we do now, and that is wasn't always so. The air wasn't always polluted; the nation was not always racked with fear of neighbors; the corporations did not always govern what we eat, learn, and amuse ourselves with; the single family house was not the only living arrangement available.

There has been some talk in the recent years about America being a Christian nation. No doubt that is not true and never was true, despite a Christian majority population. Be that as it may, if we are to be a Christian nation, it will have to be defined by whether we love our neighbor, which in my studies, is the core of all of Jesus' teachings. Do you think we are up to the task? (Not to worry, my non-Christian readers, because every religion worth its salt puts selflessness above all other virtues. The golden rule is universal among world faiths. I just feel obligated as a Christian to remind everyone that Jesus' leading directive is to love your neighbor—something I think is lost these days when Jesus is directing people to be close-minded bigots, exploitative, and to make war.)

So if any war needs to be launched in America, it needs to be a war on the suburban life, which for all its virtues and idealized traits, is really the root cause of so many problems and so much despair, and in a certain way, is fortunately doomed to such failure that it will never be revisited as a living arrangement.

Monday
Apr252005

Letter To Barbara Boxer

The following was a response to an email sent out by our senator regarding the matter of commuters in California spending something like ten days of their lives each year sitting in commuter traffic. For my impassioned argument, I got a form letter a few weeks later, no doubt generated by a keyword and database driven autoresponder.

Livin' the good life in suburbiaDear Senator,

I appreciate your concern for how much time commuters spend in traffic, and applaud the incentive to make something work. However, I positively do not expect any improvement if we use the same methods for addressing the problem as we have used for the last 50 years. Namely, the idea of using more freeway construction to supposedly alleviate congestion is ludicrous. It isn't your idea, and I don't mean to slight your efforts, but seriously, when did adding any freeways or other significantly large roads ever alleviate the traffic problem for more than a few days or weeks?

The problem, as I see it, lies in the fact that our entire manmade landscape is constructed so as to force us to be dependent on cars. This is the central disaster from which all others spring. I live in San Diego and frankly there isn't much that can be done that doesn't demand the use of cars. I know that this was an intentional arrangement that was created by automotive and oil industries in the post war period. At the same time, public light rail was abolished in most places. The suburban scheme is a disaster, because of the way it makes human life unlivable unless somehow there is a car involved, and then again, having a car isn't necessarily the ticket to living a satisfying human life, as your email confesses.

So when will we talk not only about making a too-little-too-late rail and bus solution work, but also about forcing development patterns that concentrate on high density, mixed use designs? We need to rebuild our man made landscape to honor the lives of humans and not those of cars. Cars are not going to be with us a lot longer, given the state of global oil supplies going down with the coming of the global oil peak. We should stop catering to cars as the centerpieces of our designs, and get back to making spaces that are livable without the dependence on cars. We need a revolution in our habits. We need the mindset of the New Urbanists to take over in our civic design and a total rethinking of most of our zoning laws. The less people need to be segregated from their jobs, their churches, friends, and other amenities and human relations, the better our lives can be, and we can get back far more than the ten days we now spend sitting in traffic. We need to consult the classic living spaces of older US cities, and most of Europe's living spaces. We need to stop the forced separation of the places and institutions that make our lives what they are. We need to make our cities and towns into places that serve our needs and are worth caring about. So many of our problems today can be traced to prioritizing the automobile over the human. This must stop. Can you help make this reality?

Thank you.