Friday, November 13, 2015

A way forward

Not quite nine years ago, on November 21, 2006, I had the genuine pleasure of spending almost two hours in the company of James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. I was driving him from his presentation in Mankato to the Minneapolis St. Paul airport. We discovered a shared interest in fly-fishing among other things. Much of his book is based on the premise of what happens after "peak oil" and the era of cheap fossil fuels. Not quite a decade later, we're looking at an upcoming international conference intended to help the world keep from exceeding a catastrophic rise in temperature. Meanwhile, global commodities like copper and steel are in "excessive" supply, California continues to suffer from unprecedented(?) drought, and increasing volatility and intensity in weather events are making global warming more real by the day.

volatile weather storm clouds
volatile weather storm clouds
Photo by J. Harrington

If nothing else, Kunstler is thought-provoking and entertaining. I respectfully disagree with some of his underlying concepts and his tendency to describe an array of problems without suggesting solutions. When I asked him about that, he informed me that he thought that solutions should come from those who bring us New Urbanism. While I agree that NU has many positive attributes, it seems to miss some key points. Points that are also absent from Kunstler's "Long Emergency" and at least the first volume of his continuing novel series of a World Made by Hand. Neither of those works gives much play to renewable wind, solar and/or distributed generation of electricity.

We live in a pretty rural location. Our most obvious vulnerability is loss of electricity. Without it we have no furnace, refrigeration, or water supply. At the time Kunstler was writing 'Long Emergency," I know I didn't foresee how quickly solar photovoltaics would precipitously drop in cost. We don't yet have a grid that is managed for distributed generation, but, despite what I consider short-sighted utility opposition, are at least making minor progress in a positive direction. EVs can provide at least some onsite storage for electricity but we need to continue to develop better battery technology. My point is that much of what we rely on today needs to be transformed from models based on central generation with distribution to much more node and networked systems, like the Internet, sort of. We're making inroads on that with localized food systems but still have a ways to go. We also need to transform our production system. As my Better Half noted recently, part of the answer to that may be 3D printing.

storms come in many sizes and shapes
storms come in many sizes and shapes
Photo by J. Harrington

I have major doubts and strong reservations that we can get where we need to be with continuing emphasis on globalization and trade agreements such as NAFTA and TPP. Global commodities continue to be too vulnerable to boom and bust business cycles. Only the top 1% or less benefit from a race to the bottom. As an alternative (or a complement) to Kunstler's entertaining gloom and doom (and most day's headlines these days), try Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything and Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life. This approach would probably be a tough sell on the Iron Range, but we're no longer a frontier state. Haven't been for quite some time. We are living in a world in which limits are becoming increasingly obvious. We rely on each other more and more. Our interdependence is precisely why taconite plants and paper mills are shutting down. Others can produce basic commodities less expensively. Instead of reducing our environmental protections for greater trade, we should be insisting on higher standards elsewhere to create a level playing field that doesn't sicken the customers.


By Caki Wilkinson 
A yarn ball and a hill   
maintain an equipoise until   
         their neatness starts to bore the gods   
                   of potential and energy   
         who hedge bets, reckoning the odds   
                   of when the rest will be   

set in motion, and who,   
first stumbling upon this clew,   
          constructed both the incline and   
                   the inclination to unwind.   
          Like most gods, though, they haven’t planned   
                   to stay; they mastermind   

the scheme, ex nihilio,   
then slip behind the shadow show   
          and designate an agent, chief   
                   remaker of their mischief made.   
          Each time, disguised, this leitmotif   
                   gets salvaged and replayed,   

a universe begins,   
for orogens and origins   
          suppose a Way Things Were before   
                   some volatile, untimely That—   
          sweetness perverted by the core   
                   or belfry by the bat,   

or here, a hilly green,   
whose still life, eerily serene,   
          completes their best contrivance yet:   
                   from high above, a williwaw,   
          a hiss, and then the silhouette   
                   of one terrific paw. 

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Please be kind to each other while you can.