Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Festival of Frugality #158

It is my honor to host this week's Festival of Frugality. As I stated in my last post, the “Festival of Frugality” is a “blog carnival” in which various Internet authors volunteer to host a page consisting of blog posts and articles addressing a particular topic related to frugal living. (Their link is also on my sidebar, under the title “Other Wells.”) Many bloggers submitted articles for this week's Festival, and I have selected a few of these to be showcased on this week's installment of The Well Run Dry.

But I thought I'd begin first with a general discussion of frugality, which is defined in Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary as “economy in the use of resources.” In other words, being frugal is using resources wisely, without waste. Frugality is especially relevant to people living in an environment in which resources are scarce or becoming scarce, in an economy in which average people have less and less access to those resources.

I suppose there are two views of frugality. One view sees frugality as part of a strategy of building earthly wealth so that those who are frugal now may one day no longer need frugality, because they have become rich. Those who follow this way save their money so that they can “invest” it in strategies which promise riches later. But those who have the other view see the problems now being faced by our present world – declining availability of resources and resource wars, climate change, environmental degradation, and enslavement and exploitation of poor people in order to support economic growth. Those who see these things also see how greed and consumerism are at the root of these problems, and this is what moves them to a frugal lifestyle. For them, frugality consists of a readjustment to a righteous and proper view of the world, a reality-based view, a determination to live lightly on the earth while building a meaningful existence on a foundation other than constantly getting “stuff.”

I hold the second view of frugality. To me, consumerism is evil and enslaving – and a dead end. The well's run dry and it's time for thirsty plants to learn to thrive on much less water. The best and most truthful voices in the blogosphere are saying the same thing, and are speaking with great clarity of the breakdown of our present consumerist system. Below I have highlighted some posts from a few of these bloggers:

  • Polly Poorhouse presents Economic
    Crunch: Wrapping for Less
    posted at Economic Crunch, dedicated to wrapping gifts inexpensively and ecologically. (Also, while you're at it, please read the post titled, “Clergy and Town Officials Help Homeowners At Risk” from the same blog. Although Polly did not submit this article for the present Festival of Frugality, it is a good example of community and neighborhood responses to hard times. Way to go, Polly! )

  • Miss M presents K.I.S.S. – Keep it Simple, Small posted at M is for Money. (Miss M's submission is especially interesting to me because her house is about the same size as mine. People don't need McMansions to be happy. As an example, in the book “Education of a Wandering Man” by Louis L'Amour, there is a picture of the house in which he grew up – along with six siblings!)

  • Lisa Spinelli presents Eating Healthy Without Being Wealthy: Sweet Potatoes and Yams posted at Greener Pastures. (Lisa is another blogger who seems to really “get” the brokenness of our present system. Her post on healthy eating on a budget is timely.)

  • Jim presents Please Don’t Give High Upkeep Gifts posted at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity. (Jim takes a well-deserved poke at the high maintenance “gifts” marketed so often nowadays – gifts which frequently require expensive periodic upgrades.)

  • Super Saver presents Pre-Paid Phones Save Money posted at My Wealth Builder. (Super Saver brings up an important point. We have been conditioned to think that we “need” cell phones. Cellular providers use this “need” to keep us on a treadmill of constant and ever-more-expensive upgrades. But there are cheaper ways to stay connected for those who actually need a cell phone.)

  • mbhunter presents Tips for the coming decade of frugality posted at Mighty Bargain Hunter. (Mighty Bargain Hunter is another person who “gets” the difficulty of the times we are now facing. Check out his “tips” and feel free to come up with some of your own also!)

Again, I want to praise these bloggers and the offerings they have posted this week. They are a welcome slice of reality.

Other blogs deserve honorable mention, among which are these:

Lastly, here's a post that contains general insights on the people who caused our present economic mess:

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Festival Of Neighborhood Frugality

Few people are rich enough or powerful enough nowadays to avoid facing the worrisome future that looms over us, a future brought on us by overconsumption and the end of abundant natural resources. Yet there are strategies for dealing with that future which can enable a person to live without worry to a great extent, even if such a person does not have a great deal of money or political power. The root causes of our present societal problems boil down to greed, overconsumption and the massive concentration of wealth into the hands of a few. One key remedy for these and for the many symptoms generated by these root causes consists of learning to live more simply, learning to live well on less.

That's why I am pleased to announce that I've been given a chance to host an upcoming Festival of Frugality at this blog, The Well Run Dry. The Festival of Frugality is a “blog carnival” in which various Internet authors volunteer to host a page consisting of blog posts and articles addressing a particular topic related to frugal living. (Their link is on my sidebar, under the title “Other Wells.”)

I'd like to dedicate my upcoming Festival to “Neighborhood Frugality.” That is, what are people doing as neighbors to save money together, to cut down on costs, to alleviate the financial impact of our present economic troubles? What ideas are people coming up with? There are many things that neighbors can do together. For instance,

  • Has anyone started a barter network?

  • Has anyone started a “lending library” of commonly used tools or machinery? Not every guy needs his own table saw every day; a group of neighbors might get together to buy such an item for the entire group and work out a scheme for sharing it.

  • Are there any homeowners who have rented out space in their homes for storage? Are there any homeowners who have rented rooms to boarders? How is it working? Do you have any suggestions or tips?

  • Have any neighborhoods gotten together to buy needed items in bulk, like food? What arrangements did you make? How is it working?

  • What neighborhood ideas do you have that I haven't listed here?

If you read The Well Run Dry and you have a blog of your own, feel free to submit a blog article on this subject. Share your tips and practical wisdom. I will be hosting Festival #158, which will be published on 30 December, so you will have until the 29th to get your blog entries in. To submit your entries, go to this page: http://www.festivaloffrugality.com/submission-guidelines. And feel free to check out this week's current Festival at the Naturally Frugal blog.

As for The Well Run Dry, my posting will be a bit light this next week. I am traveling to visit relatives over Christmas. I'll be driving, so three days of my time will be tied up. I may be able to get out another post by next Saturday, if time permits.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Car-Free Transportation - A Few Last Words

Here are a few tips for bicycle commuting. If any readers have more tips, feel free to send them in.

If you have to ride a fair distance, and you have to look nice when you get to where you're going (as in commuting to work), wear a set of clothes specifically for bicycling and pack your nice clothes in a pannier.

How to pack clothes in a pannier (so that they don't wrinkle): Go to Kinko's or a craft or office supply store, and pick up a used 3-inch cardboard tube. These are usually used to hold paper rolls for CAD drafting plotters and heavy-duty printers, so places like Kinko's should have some empty tubes lying around. Using a hacksaw, cut the tube down so that it is short enough to fit in a pannier, yet long enough to wrap a folded shirt and pair of pants around it. On the morning of your commute, wrap your shirt and pants carefully around the tube, stuff a pair of dress socks and an undershirt inside it (and underwear too, if you think you'll need an extra pair) and insert the wrapped tube carefully into your pannier. Wrapping your clothes around the tube thus will keep them from getting wrinkled during your ride to work. But don't do this the night before your commute or you will have some unwanted creases.

When I said above, “wear a set of clothes specifically for bicycling,” I did not mean to go to a bike shop and buy the clothes they sell. Those clothes are very expensive, and most of us don't look cool in lycra. What I mean, rather, is that you should get some good sturdy shorts with lots of pockets, some boxer briefs, a few T-shirts that you don't mind getting a little grubby, and some tennis shoes. Of course, that's for summer riding. If you have to commute at this time of year (there's snow in Portland right now and the temperature is below freezing. Imagine that!), then you'll want some long johns, maybe some sweat pants and a sweat shirt, a good pair of gloves, and a ski mask or beanie.

And don't forget the helmet! I personally know a guy who was glad he was wearing a helmet when he “ate it” on a ride. If you don't like your brain, a helmet is optional.

For extra visibility, wear a fluorescent reflectively-striped vest. Again, don't buy the expensive lightweight “Tour De France” kind sold at a bike shop unless you have money to burn. Instead, go to a place like Lowe's or Home Depot (one of my old ex-neighbors calls it “Home Cheapo”) and get yourself a vest for under $10.

If you have to take the bus while riding your bike and your bike has a rack on the front fork, carry a bungee cord with you on your commute. When you put your bike on the bus bike rack, bungee the bike holder arm so that it doesn't slip down off the front wheel.

If you find that you're hot and sweaty when you arrive at work, take a pack of baby wipes and a bottle or stick of “Crystal Deodorant” with you. What is “Crystal Deodorant?” you ask. Here you can read about it: www.thecrystal.com. Both baby wipes and deodorant can be had at many drug stores, as well as “health-food” chain stores like New Seasons Market and Whole Foods. When you get to work, go into the handicapped stall of the restroom and wipe down/deodorize using the baby wipes and Crystal Deodorant. Then change clothes and you're ready to go.

Much can be said about riding in snow and on ice. Most sources advise getting some studded tires or making some studded tires yourself. In the Portland area, most bike shops don't carry such tires because their owners don't seem to think it snows or ices up that much here (Maybe it doesn't, but I've been looking at white stuff on the ground for the last three days.) Anyway, if you have to ride in the snow, do the following:

  • Go slow. Falling over slows you down more than going slow does.

  • Ride on fat tires. Right now I'm riding on Continental Town & Country 2” tires.

  • Inflate your tires to the bare minimum recommended pressure (in fact, you may want to go even a few PSI less than the recommended minimum).

  • Practice a lot until you get the hang of it.

These are the things I'm doing, and so far, I've only fallen once.

Wear some sort of eye protection. Being blinded by bugs or road debris is not cool.

Here are some books and websites I have found to be helpful:

On a rather different subject, I've been reading about the riots and protests now taking place in Greece. It seems that Greece has become very much what the neoliberals and “free-market” capitalists tried to make the U.S. into – a nation whose resources are all privatized, whose wealth is concentrated into the hands of a very small elite, whose government exists solely to raid, loot and funnel the wealth of the nation into the hands of that elite, a nation which has driven the cost of living up to unsustainable levels for the poor majority while driving wages down as low as possible, all while violently suppressing any dissent. Now their chickens are coming home to roost. I wonder if our chickens are very far behind. You can read all about it at The Guardian, “How Police Shooting of a Teenage Boy Rallied the 700-Euro Generation,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/13/athens-greece-riots.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mass Transit - Promises and Perils

Now it is time to consider publicly-owned, publicly-provided mass transit as one more strand in our safety net scheme. Mass transit has many things to offer those who want to save money, reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, or reduce their environmental footprint. Katy Alvord's book Divorce Your Car! lists the many environmental, energy, safety and community benefits of mass transit, as well as the benefit to local economies. (See Chapter 13, “Let Someone Else Take You For A Ride.”) To cite just one aspect discussed in that chapter, a single-occupant car uses over 5,000 British Thermal Units (BTU's) of energy per passenger mile, whereas a train car carrying 19 people uses 2,300 BTU's per passenger mile, and a bus carrying that same number uses only 1,000. Also going by bus cuts nitrous oxide pollution by 25 percent, carbon monoxide by 80 percent, and hydrocarbons by 90 percent per passenger mile. And one full 40-foot bus eliminates the need for 58 cars on the road. A six-car rail train can eliminate the need for up to 900 cars on the road.

But there are those reading this who say, “Fine, but I'm only concerned about my own budget. Show me the money.” For those people I give the following comparisons:

Car Ownership Costs:

  • Owning a car costs $480.25 a month to drive, minus fuel (“The Real Costs of Car Ownership Calculator,” www.bikesatwork.com/carfree/cost-of-car-ownership.html)

  • Buying a new Chevy Malibu costs between $7,200 and $8200 per year, including fuel, assuming that the owner drives 15,000 miles/year (“True Cost to Own,” http://www.edmunds.com/apps/cto/CTOintroController)

  • According to the same Edmunds.com calculator, a Land Rover LR2's total cost of ownership over five years is $58,841.00. Even a Toyota Corolla's total cost of ownership over 5 years comes out to $32,078.00.

Cost of transit ridership:

  • OCTA 30-day all-zone bus pass: $45.00 (Adult, all local routes) (www.octa.net/pass_fare_prices.aspx)

  • Metrolink Monthly Pass from Fullerton to L.A. Union Station: $168.00

  • Los Angeles MTA Metro Monthly Pass (all zones): $62.00

  • Portland Metro (Oregon) TriMet Monthly Pass, Adult, All Zones: $86.00 (This includes all bus lines and unlimited stops on the MAX light rail trains.)

It is clear that great savings can be reaped by those who park their cars and rely entirely on other forms of transit. The savings are even greater when such people get rid of their cars entirely. (In fact, just now as I write this, I am seriously thinking of doing just that.) And there is a further benefit. A company named WageWorks contracts with many large and mid-sized employers throughout the United States to provide benefits to employees which are funded by pre-tax dollars from employee earnings. This provides further savings to employees to purchase transit passes through WageWorks. For instance, if a monthly train pass costs $115 in after-tax dollars, with WageWorks the cost is reduced to $69.00. (See https://www.wageworks.com/employee/commuter/)

Yet the fact is that public transit in this country exists in an environment which is hostile to any system that interferes with the concentration of wealth into private hands by private businesses. That environment is therefore hostile to public transit. The book Divorce Your Car! describes the actions of General Motors and other automakers in the earlier parts of the 20th century to reduce all Americans to dependence on automotive transportation by buying up municipal rail and streetcar lines, then dismantling them. Corporation-friendly politicians have also done their best to tear apart existing mass transit systems or to prevent the building of new systems, as seen in the efforts of former U.S. Representative Tom DeLay to prevent the passage of the 2003 METRORail Light Rail Initiative in Houston, Texas, as well as the ongoing efforts of President George W. Bush to destroy AMTRAK.

Thus at this time in our history, when the system of automotive transport is failing due to the inability of increasing numbers of people to afford using it, the available alternative systems are not as strong or robust as they could be. Ridership is shooting up for many municipal transit networks, yet the operators of some transit systems do not have the resources to accommodate the new riders.

Public transit faces three challenges at present: a funding challenge, a security challenge, and a perception challenge.

Funding

It is natural to think that public transit pays for itself entirely through the collection of fares from passengers, but this is not the case. Fares actually cover only a small portion of a transit agency's operating costs. If one considers the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), fares cover only five percent of the total operating budget. Federal, State and local government revenue streams, bond revenues and reserve funds cover the rest. The Los Angeles County MTA system covered only 18 percent of its operating expenses through fares, according to its 2007 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. And the Portland TriMet system budget for 2009 includes an estimate that passenger revenue will comprise only 17 percent of total operating revenues. In the cases of these other transit systems, Federal, State and local government revenue streams and other sources make up for the rest.

The viability and health of a public transit system therefore depends on the availability of non-fare government-supplied funds. However, the Federal government has historically been stingy with transit funding. According to a recent Grist Magazine article, annual Federal spending on new transit projects is $1.6 billion, while spending on highways is nearly $37 billion. The same imbalance is seen on the local level, in many cases. For instance, Orange County, California approved Measure M, a transportation improvement initiative, in 1990. Of the total funds collected under Measure M, only 25 percent go to public transit; the rest go to freeway and road projects. Anyone who has been stuck on the 5 or the 405 at the El Toro Y, or stuck in the “Orange Crush” (the 57/22 Freeway merge) in the last few years can attest that widening freeways is only a temporary fix of a breaking system, and that Orange County's alternative systems are inadequate. There is a further problem with many transit systems, namely, that funding which depends on selling bonds is going to be much harder as time passes, due to the ongoing credit crisis. Transit systems such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority which have large amounts of debt may very soon be in a lot of trouble.

As times get harder and resource constraints such as Peak Oil become more apparent, many municipalities will therefore find that they will have to choose between continuing to cater to the automobile versus funding a system that everyone can use. They won't be able to have both. If governments choose the automobile, transit riders may have to choose between a three- to 20-fold increase in fares, or the breakdown of their transit system.

Security

It's obvious that a transit system that is convenient and safe will be well-used. Yet there are aspects of riding public transit which make one wonder whether the heads of transit agencies are not secret employees or friends of automakers and other car-dependent big businesses and “free-market” disciples. This is seen in the not-so-benign neglect of security on many bus, rail and subway lines, and the existence of long-standing volunteer “security” organizations such as the Guardian Angels, who fill the security gap. In my post, “Uncle Sam's Vital Signs,” I pointed out the lack of security cameras on OCTA buses. The Fullerton Observer also ran an article in 2008 about the stabbing death of a gifted teenager by a gang member shortly after both had gotten off an OCTA bus.

There are things I have seen while riding the TriMet system. When I first started riding the MAX as part of my commute to and from work, I almost never saw any fare inspectors. Shortly after I began riding, however, there was a widely publicized incident in which a gang youth attacked an elderly man with a baseball bat on a MAX train. This led to the sudden publicizing of TriMet's long-standing “benign neglect” of security in the Portland Metro area, and the frustration expressed by police departments of adjacent cities served by the MAX. TriMet's answer was to hire private, unarmed Wackenhut security guards to ride the MAX trains within the Portland area. Several of the guards I saw were elderly and a bit overweight – not very much of a deterrent. Also, their appearance on trains was very infrequent. In the absence of any security personnel, I have seen a man threaten to pull his pants down and expose his private parts; a teen girl who spat on the floor; a couple of people who rolled cigarettes and prepared to light them; a number of drunk and deranged people; and a few too many loud, threatening and obnoxious teenagers, some of whom played loud music on personal MP3 players for the rest of us to “enjoy.”

It is true that in the last two months, TriMet has been stationing fare inspectors on train platforms. Their timing is ironically funny, however. The fare inspectors are on platforms in the early morning (around 0-dark-thirty) when almost every MAX rider is a fare-paying citizen going to work. I have only rarely seen a fare inspector or police officer checking fares in the afternoon, when most troublemakers and wanna-be troublemakers are awake and about. I suppose it's easier to work a crowd of wage slaves stumbling off to work to feed their bill collectors. And some of these wage slaves have been bitten by ticket vending machines that don't work, as noted at the site http://trimetdown.swiftreport.net/, run by a frustrated TriMet rider.

Deeds like these point out the lack of attention paid by municipalities to a resource such as public transit. Municipal governments need to have a change of focus and a change of attitude – they need to begin to see their public transit systems as a vital, valuable strategic resource, and they need to begin to guard and defend them as such, so that the productive members of their communities can safely and confidently use them. They need to see especially the added value brought to a community by a safe, convenient and reliable mass transit system.

Perception

The masters of the dominant auto-centric culture wage war against any system that might threaten their profits, and mass transit is no exception, as I have already noted. “Benign neglect” of a municipal mass transit system makes it easier for the promoters of automotive transport to make their case that mass transit doesn't work and that it should be eliminated. This is seen in the recent “Creeps and Weirdos” ad campaign by General Motors, about which I commented in my previous post. The fact that this perception has become widespread in our culture was brought home to me in conversations I recently had with co-workers about public transit. To hear them talk, riding the bus or MAX was as dangerous as walking through Fallujah nowadays or Da Nang during the Vietnam War.

Those who have such attitudes can't be expected to be very supportive of mass transit. Yet by refusing to be advocates, they may find themselves without alternatives when the system of automotive transit fails. The failure need not be global to hit home – it may quite personal, coming at different times for different individuals, when a mechanical breakdown occurs and the estimate to fix it runs into the thousands of dollars, and there's no money in the bank account and one's credit cards are maxed out, and there are no home equity lines of credit available and the dealer refuses to sell you a new car.

Sources:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

War Against Safety Nets - A Few Skirmishes

Many thanks to Ahavah Gayle, author of the blog Shalom Bayit (http://shalomhabayit.blogspot.com/) for the following news items:

First, General Motors, the automotive corporation whose existence is so vital to America's prosperity that we must bail them out, has been caught in the act of instigating an ad campaign to portray users of public transit as “creeps and weirdos.” They did this in order to sell more of their Chevy Cavalier sedans. This is even though the system of relying on private automobiles for transportation is clearly breaking, as seen in the recent spike in the price of oil and gasoline, and the fact that increasing numbers of people can't afford to drive in the United States. I must confess that I'm one of those creeps and weirdos that rides public transit, and that I do such weird things as trying to save the planet by reducing my carbon footprint, resisting the temptation to become a consumatron, trying to stay out of debt, and treating my fellow humans with respect and dignity. On the other hand, I have run into such fine normal car-driving citizens as the selfish, fat driver of a red brand-new Chevy Suburban I saw last week, who blocked a bike lane with his vehicle and refused to move.

If you want to see the evidence of GM's foot-in-mouth disease, you can look here: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_Fd_dIsEkgvI/ST1P3K5MRDI/AAAAAAAAAXk/xuriidC2R0M/s1600-h/Bad+Transit+Ad.jpg and here: http://www.southphillyreview.com/view_article.php?id=284. Nice one, GM. And you deserve a bailout?

Then, there's the very recent arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich by the FBI on corruption charges. The arrest and corruption investigation seem to have been spearheaded by Patrick Fitzgerald, United States Attorney General for the Northern District of Illinois, and by Robert Grant, FBI special agent in charge. Among the evidence against the governor are several recordings of allegedly wiretapped conversations between the governor and his aides.

The funny thing is, though...that this arrest took place one day after the governor announced that he was ordering the Illinois state government to suspend all dealings with Bank of America, due to that bank's alleged involvement in prohibiting the issuance of severance and vacation back pay to workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. Richard Gillman, owner of the company, had recently bought a plant in Iowa that also manufactures windows and doors, and had abruptly told his Chicago workers that he was closing the Chicago plant immediately, and that they were all terminated. This is a violation of Federal law that requires that employers give their workers 60 days' notice before a plant shutdown. Mr. Gillman also alleged that it was Bank of America's refusal to extend credit for the Chicago plant that forced him to shut that plant down, and that Bank of America had required him to fire his workers without giving them legally-owed severance pay as a condition for obtaining further loans.

If these things are true, then both what Mr. Gillman and Bank of America did are immoral, unethical, and illegal. Yet Bloomberg News, the source for those with money, wrote an article highly critical of the Illinois government's “interference in private commercial affairs.” And one day after telling B of A that the Illinois state government was going to punish the bank by no longer doing business with them, Governor Blagojevich got arrested. Could it be that the governor was “Elliot Spitzer'ed”? “What does it mean to 'Elliot Spitzer' someone?” you ask. Ah, that's a story for another time...

Further sources:

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Cross-Cultural Community Building

I am in the preliminary stages of writing some closing posts on the subject of alternative transportation. Those posts will provide a few final words on bicycle commuting, as well as discussing the challenges and promises regarding bus and commuter rail transit. But there's a bit of research to do before those posts are ready, so I'd like to introduce a rather different “safety net” suggestion for this week's blog post.

We are witnessing the emergence of a new era, brought to birth by Peak Oil and other resource peaks, climate change, and the economic turmoil resulting from these things. The times now upon us are bringing and will continue to bring challenges too great for people to face as mere individuals. Yet the institutions on which people rely are failing, and may soon be of no help to people in trouble. These failing institutions – governmental and economic – are large and centralized for the most part, and they treat their clients impersonally, as isolated individuals, as mere consumers. It's easy for individuals to fall through their cracks. And the circumstances which have been favorable to the creation and maintenance of these institutions are now disappearing.

Most writers and thinkers who have forecast something of our present economic and resource troubles have pointed to the need for each of us to re-localize our lives as a way of coping with our present times. A key part of this re-localization is the reestablishment and rebuilding of local communities and community associations. There are many illustrative examples of the benefits of community for those experiencing economic and social hard times. One such example is the experience of Cuban citizens during the painful period of Cuba's history immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the supply of petroleum products and other supplies to Cuba was suddenly cut off. The adaptations undertaken by ordinary members of that society are documented in the film, The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil (http://www.communitysolution.org/poc.html). There is also a book, From Redlining to Reinvestment (Gregory D. Squires, editor, Temple University Press), which describes community responses to business and government efforts to destroy neighborhoods targeted because of racial prejudice. Those who are willing to do a bit of historical digging can find examples of local community responses to the pressures of the Great Depression. Lastly, there are some useful sites which have documented the role of community in coping with disasters such as Hurricane Katrina (Two such sites are found here: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/FY/FY84000.pdf, and here: http://www.capacitybuilding.net/Katrina/disasterarea.htm).

The re-birth of community, experienced on a local level, is then a very good resource for coping with our present troubles. By community locally experienced I mean having a circle of others who each watch the other person's back, who lend to and trade with and give help outright as a gift to and generally support each other in practical, physical, tangible, necessary ways. Such communities are able to address the problems and challenges faced by their members in ways that large, “official” institutions cannot or will not.

Now many people who read these words will say, “Ah, community! Of course! I need to find a group of people who see things just like I do, people with whom I am totally compatible, so that we can run off to the mountains and form an “intentional” community or an ecovillage or a survivalist hideout.” Or, at least they will be thinking somewhat along these lines. Such people will set up a very strict “ideal community” in their minds, and will establish very strict entrance requirements for anyone who wishes to join their “community”. Yet most people will never be able to establish such an ideal community.

Why is this so? There are two reasons: first, that most Americans increasingly lack the resources required to relocate and build such a community from scratch, and secondly, that no two humans see perfectly eye-to-eye 100 percent of the time, much less a community of several dozen humans. As to the first reason, the evidence of failing resources for most Americans is obvious. There have been 23 American bank failures this year. The Big Three automakers are desperately crying for a bailout. The “official” U.S. unemployment rate is now 6.7 percent, although the actual figure may be over 12 percent. According to a Bloomberg.com report today, one in ten American homeowners is behind on his mortgage payments. Today on my commute in to work, I passed a McMansion in Lake Oswego which had been for sale for at least three months and which now has a “Bank Owned” sign in front. (I call Lake Oswego the “Orange County” of Oregon, so you know things are getting bad when you see things like foreclosures in Lake Oswego.)

That means that if most of us are going to rely on the experience of local community in dealing with our present times, we're going to have to build communities consisting of the people close at hand. And that brings us to the second problem with community-building: the fact that we're not all identical, not all clones, not all made perfectly to suit the tastes of one particular person or group or demographic or business bloc. Too many of us find this fact difficult to bear. There is abundant historical evidence of this in the U.S.: redlining and other racist tactics used to exclude ethnic minorities from “good” neighborhoods; the recent furor of the Right over illegal immigration; the segregationist mindset of many “survivalist” groups; and the war waged by many municipalities against the homeless. The motivation for all of these deeds has been the squeamishness of mainstream American society when faced with anything that's different from the norm that people are used to. But that squeamishness has been coddled especially by the American real estate industry which has ever been zealous of increased profits and ever vigilant against anything that threatened those profits. The real estate industry has sold most of us an image of successful life in the United States, and of those who live that successful life, and they have told us that this successful life is to be found in ever-more exurban and upscale neighborhoods full of “nice” people with “nice” schools attended by “nice” blond children. There are no signs of poverty to be seen in such neighborhoods – no clotheslines, no public transit, and no homeless people or illegals, or anything else that smacks of something less than affluence.

The trouble is that if people are going to face our present times intelligently and wisely, they're going to have to live within their means. And this means that most of us won't get to live in the “nice” neighborhoods. We'll have to live wherever we can. This also means that if we are going to build community as a response to these present times, we're going to have to form bonds with people who don't fit the Sunset Magazine or Ladies Home Journal profile, people whose kids don't look like many of the kids seen in Parenting Magazine. You might have to buy or rent in a working-class neighborhood; your kids might have to play with working-class kids. And your family might have to form communal ties with families who are very different from the American “ideal.”

I am thinking particularly of immigrants, both legal and illegal. The Right sought to make illegal immigration a major issue both in 2006 and this year, and they even sought to drastically curtail legal immigration as well. I'd like to suggest that it's too late for such thoughts; immigration cannot be reversed. The cost of trying is too high. And in most cases it would be immoral for anyone to attempt to do so – especially when one considers that many people are coming to the US from Latin America in order to escape the destruction of their livelihoods due to American corporate and governmental policies inflicted on their home countries. According to the Brookings Institute, there are an estimated 36 million immigrants in the U.S., one-third of whom are illegal. In the working-class neighborhood where I live, I run into immigrants of Mexican, Ethiopian, Asian and Russian descent whenever I go to Winco to shop.

These immigrants – and by “immigrant” I mean first-generation immigrants – have much to offer. Most of them come from countries whose standard of living is much lower than that of the U.S. Their families have not been corrupted by materialism and worthless mass entertainment to the same extent as native-born American families. They have learned to make do practically with much less – and to be happy in the process. Therefore they have valuable lessons to teach a nation whose wild ride of consumerism is crashing, a nation of jittery people, many of whom have never before gone down the path we are now on. If there are immigrants in your neighborhood, they may have valuable tricks and tips to teach you about living more simply.

Then there are the homeless. According to a study by HUD, during a twelve month period between October 2006 and September 2007, there were 1,589,000 people who used a transitional or emergency shelter in the U.S. However, because this number was generated by a government agency under the authority of the Bush administration, this number may be far too low to be accurate. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, many people who live in rural areas are not counted in official Government statistics. (See http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/Fact%20Sheet%20for%20CollegeStudents.pdf) The Coalition also reports that in 2007, 3.5 million people (1.35 million of them children) were likely to experience homelessness. (See http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/facts/Fact%20Sheet%20and%20LessonPlan-6-8.pdf) The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has also recently published a fact sheet detailing the drastic increase in homelessness resulting from the present mortgage crisis (See http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Foreclosure_effects_on_homelessness.pdf). If communities can't separate themselves from their immigrants, they certainly won't be able to separate themselves from their homeless. And just as builders of community need the contributions of immigrants, they will also need the contributions of the homeless. Those who have been homeless for a significant time, and who have managed to retain something of their mental health and dignity, have usually learned to be incredibly resourceful and adaptable, and they too have valuable lessons to teach a society that's going to have to learn quickly to make do, to keep things until they wear out and to fix them when they break, to keep a cheerful perspective in less-than-comfortable circumstances.

To put all this in a few words, it is those who are successfully coping with hard times who can teach the rest of us to successfully cope with the times we are now facing. These people are a valuable and readily available asset to those who want to build community. But the other members of that community must also give in return. So if you want the immigrants and the homeless of your community to give their wisdom to you, you be a giver of material resources in return – clothes, food, volunteer time at a rescue mission, rides in your car if you have one, maybe even a place for someone to stay. Let those who have share with those who have not, and do not try to isolate yourself from the “have-nots.” If you have to, learn another language besides English. (I'm working on my Russian right now.) You never can tell when the roles will be reversed, and you will be one of the “have-nots” and one of them will be among the “haves.”

Building a community out of “less-than-nice” people will take some work, some up-front building of trust, and a willingness to reach out. But deeds of practical mercy on the part of community-builders will smooth the way. And as the “official” systems of society break down, we will find ourselves increasingly relying on the people close at hand, the people who live no more than a few blocks away from us, people who because of their culture or experiences have the sort of wisdom needed to guide their communities through hard times.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Where We Are, Where We Were and Where I Think We're Headed

It's been a rather wild year, and there's no doubt that we who have lived through it have become partakers of the ancient Chinese curse regarding “interesting times.” It's only natural for those who see something of the significance of those times to try to figure out where things are headed.

At the end of last year, oil prices were taking off like a passenger jet from an airstrip. Certain sectors of the global economy were faltering, but there was not the wholesale failure and wreckage seen in recent months. Iraq seemed to be “stablizing,” the “surge” seemed to be working. Many who had recently heard of Peak Oil (by recent, I mean those with less than a year's awareness of this subject) were like me, excitedly telling what we knew to anyone who would listen, expecting major, widespread and imminent changes, and frantically trying to prepare.

The first several months of 2008 did not disappoint. We saw widespread mortgage failures, the deaths of several banks, the appearance of massive zones of foreclosed properties, the stripping of partially-built and abandoned housing tracts, and an oil price which briefly rose to nearly $150 a barrel, as well as widespread evidence of accelerating man-made climate change. Some who followed these trends announced that Peak Oil had definitely arrived, that one proof of this would be that the price of oil would continue to rise quickly to astronomical levels (say, $300 a barrel), and that the world would see a rapid increase in geopolitical conflicts as a result.

But then the world witnessed a series of rather confusing events. There was geopolitical conflict to be sure in Georgia's Ossetian region. But the price of oil began to fall, and continued falling even as the United States was hit by two hurricanes which resulted in widespread shortages of gasoline throughout the American Southeast. I thought the fall in price was due to manipulation by corporate interests to prevent Americans from seeing the true condition of our country's energy supply and economy until after the election. Now I am thinking that while that may have been partly true from July to September, there are now much stronger natural causes at work behind the drop in petroleum prices. It seems that the failure of the American economy over the last few months had actually reached a point which resulted in a significant, long-term decrease in the use of oil and refined petroleum products. This is what drove the price of oil sharply down, along with the collapse in economic activities such as manufacturing and shipping due to the credit crisis.

Among the predictions I encountered frequently when I was just beginning to find out about Peak Oil is the thought that once oil prices hit a certain level, the global economy would instantly and catastrophically collapse. We now know that a collapse of sorts has occurred, yet it hasn't been as severe, widespread or sudden as some predicted. I still have a job, and I know many others who still do. But we are not unaffected. My company derives much of its business from providing design engineering services to industrial and petrochemical clients. This summer one of our upcoming projects was put on hold indefinitely, and within the last two weeks several petroleum projects were canceled due to the drop in the price of oil. This has put several of our other offices in a bind. Perhaps I should say that I still have a job for the time being. I feel somewhat like people who recorded video footage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami from the relative safety of the upper stories of hotels or restaurants on higher ground, while watching their fellow humans being swept away. And the collapse is still in its early stages, according to the sources I read and trust.

As I said earlier, it's only natural when facing such uncertain times to wonder what the shape of coming events will be. Some writers analyze the fine nuances of global geopolitical games being played by the major nations of the world. Others analyze the meaning of the various financial moves being made by corporations, banks and stock markets. Yet others analyze the significance and strategy of the various “terrorist” attacks that make up the present asymmetric war against the American empire and Western dominance of the world. Then there are those who don't bother with any of those things, having concluded simply that life as they know it is about to change irreversibly and drastically, and who are simply trying to adjust as best as they can. I identify most with people in this last category, yet I am curious as to how things in the larger world will turn out. And I tend to form opinions and make predictions. Here are a few, for anyone who's interested. But take them with a grain of salt. There are, after all, many highly educated and famous “crashwatchers” writing about these things on the Web nowadays, and they have access to information that I don't possess. Look at me simply as a sort of amateur golfer on a Saturday afternoon who dreams that he's Tiger Woods.

Here then is where I think we are. The global credit crisis is a crisis of currency of sorts. It was caused by the fact that banks and investment houses created certificates of worth out of the interest-bearing debts of hundreds of millions of small, working-class people. When Peak Oil arrived (and I do most definitely believe that it has arrived), and the prices of food and energy began to skyrocket, these poor people were unable to make regular payments on their debts. This caused massive debt defaults, reducing the value of the certificates of worth based on these debts to near zero. Moreover, the poor and working-class people who drove the consumer economy were no longer able to grow their consumption to satisfy the demands of a “growth” economy. The even poorer people who actually made consumer goods in Third-World factories were not able to even begin consuming things beyond food and energy. Thus the growth economy faltered and began to collapse, driving down the prices of finished goods and raw materials such as petroleum products.

Note, however, that the collapse in prices of raw materials and petroleum is not due to finding additional supplies of these, because no new easy-to-get, concentrated supplies have been found. The new supplies of oil that have been discovered have all been deposits that will present extreme technical challenges and require lots of capital, energy and equipment in order to exploit. Remaining deposits of coal and minerals from molybdenum to phosphorus are all becoming more and more diffuse, and require digging and processing ever-greater quantities of ore in order to get a given quantity of refined product. Commodity prices have collapsed due to the collapse of the credit market, which has cut off prospective buyers from the means to buy raw materials. Because of the resulting collapse in price for these materials, and because of the increasing cost of new projects to extract these materials, extractors and miners of these materials are canceling projects right and left.

But this is a dangerous situation. Let's say that the credit crisis works itself out eventually, and buyers and sellers of raw materials and finished goods decide on a new medium of exchange, one which inspires trust and confidence that the units of its currency represent actual value. That confidence may be misplaced, but that's another story. Nevertheless, let's say that there's a restoration of confidence in credit markets which results in another attempt at global economic growth. This growth spurt will very quickly run up against the same scarcity of resources which caused the price of raw materials such as oil, phosphorus and copper to spike earlier this year. The price spike will make finished goods made from these raw materials unaffordable to most of the world's population, and another collapse will result. An ever-quickening cycle of attempts at growth followed by collapses will ensue, and this will be the proof that we have passed Hubbert's Peak for most of the resources on which our global, “official” economy depends. The fact that the collapses cause investors to cancel new mining or energy projects means that the attempts at global economic growth will falter more quickly, because of the decline of existing supplies of oil and minerals. In short, I see an ever-shortening series of cycles of attempted growth and collapse over the next few years, before a final and unavoidable stage of worldwide economic decline sets in.

As for oil supplies, I am no geologist or petroleum expert. But I tend to believe that the Energy Watch Group Oil Report released in 2007 is accurate, and that world oil production has already peaked and is now in irreversible decline. I think that 2009 will be the year in which this becomes undeniably and painfully obvious.

As far as our adaptation as a nation to these things, I have a few things to say that may be hard for some to swallow. I am a “recovering Republican” who quit the GOP in 2006, because I was disgusted by their money-grubbing, closet racism, and role in the present American corporatocracy. Yet in watching the Democrats since then, I have seen many Democratic politicians who are servants of that same corporatocracy. So while I voted for Obama in this last election (the very first time I ever voted Democrat), I am unwilling to become wildly enthusiastic about what he will do in office. My skepticism is especially strong when I see some of the people he has picked to be part of his administration. If he nominates Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state, that would not be a good sign for many Third World residents who are suffering from the invasion of their countries by rich Western multinational corporations. His choice for attorney general is Eric Holder, a man who helped defend Chiquita Brands International against charges that the corporation hired and supplied “death squads” in Colombia to murder those opposed to Chiquita's business practices. And there is the support Mr. Obama has shown for all of the bank bailouts that have taken place this year.

I think there is a real danger that Obama may turn into a mere symbol of “change” rather than being an actual change, and that “change” may be defined as nothing more than saying nice things about wanting to help poor people and having a “diverse” government. In short, I think Mr. Obama may try to take the same path that President Bill Clinton did during his administration – defining being “progressive” in terms of “tolerance” and “diversity” and talking much about supporting the little guy, yet all the while being a servant of our present corporatocracy. The strategy worked quite well for President Clinton for a while, even though Western corporations were ruinously exploiting the rest of the world and were accelerating their outsourcing and deregulation of the American economy under his watch. But Mr. Clinton and most of the mainstream media were caught entirely off guard by the WTO riots and protests in Seattle in 1999.

I think a similar surprise awaits Mr. Obama if he tries to take the same path. There is not much real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. I think those who are in power in Washington and who are about to come into power have a common goal: to preserve the American empire and Western dominance of the world for as long as possible. Whereas President Bush did so clumsily and artlessly, Mr. Obama may be urged to do so smoothly and suavely as Clinton did. So it wouldn't surprise me to see that there is no immediate rush to bring American troops home from Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor would it surprise me to see our government continuing to aggressively push “free-trade” agreements in as many regions as possible. And while I expect that the Kyoto accords may be signed, I think our “answer” to climate change and energy will be to make a lot of noise about finding a technological fix rather than learning to live more modestly. On the home front, I expect both Democrats and Republicans to justify the need to keep the Patriot Act in force. And I expect that the poor of this country will continue to be required to bear the losses of the rich.

Yet I also expect that there will be a strong backlash if our nation's government continues to serve corporate interests as it has. I don't think that backlash will be seen first in our country, but rather abroad. It will often take the form of violent attempts by Third World residents to free themselves from American corporate domination. It will be called “terrorism” by the American media. And it will be one of the things that leads to the breakdown of the American empire, because of the costs borne by those who try to stop it and the futility of their efforts. I expect the earliest acts of that backlash to occur far sooner in Mr. Obama's administration than they did in Mr. Clinton's administration.

In short, it wouldn't surprise me to see an Obama administration trying desperately to maintain the same global “official” system that the Bush administration served. Yet the system is breaking, and the attempts so far to save it are only hastening its demise. The world is about to get much bigger again.

As far as a timetable, I have my own guesses. But I'm keeping them private. In the meantime, my advice to anyone who is reading is to work on building your own safety nets, your connections to your immediate community, and your repertoire of useful and necessary skills. And enjoy the low commodity prices while you can, because they will probably soon go back up. Today I saw regular unleaded gasoline on sale for $1.79 a gallon...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Builder Of Safety Nets

I just saw a rousing video which is posted on the site of a fellow blogger, Sarah, author of Accidental Blog. The video is of a speech given by Majora Carter at a 2006 TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference. In that speech she talks of her efforts as a black woman living in a depressed, blighted area of the Bronx to beautify her neighborhood and bring changes to make her neighborhood more healthy and sustainable. She does say a few things I don't agree with: citing “sustainable development” as a desirable goal without articulating the limits beyond which such development is not sustainable, and citing Amory Lovins as one of her influences, as well as her high regard for Al Gore (with whom I am frankly not impressed). Nevertheless her passion is undeniable, as well as the record of her accomplishments on a community level.

It is the vision and example of people like her that will be vital for communities who wish to build a safety net of alternative systems to our present political system and global official economy which is breaking down. She has inspired me at a time in which I was beginning to wonder whether my own efforts were accomplishing anything worthwhile, or whether I was wasting my time.

I have also been enjoying a series on “A Resilient Suburbia,” written by Jeff Vail, author of the blog rhizome. In that series he challenges a particular notion which has prevailed for the past few years among those who study peak oil and its effects on society. That notion is the idea that peak oil and its economic effects will render suburbia unviable, leading to the abandonment of suburbs. Mr. Vail's first post in his series explains that we are stuck with suburbia, since we do not have access to the credit that would allow us to build a substitute, and that attempting to build a substitute would lower the value of the collateral used to secure the needed credit, since that collateral consists of the already-developed real estate which comprises present suburbia. His second post states that the transportation issues faced by suburbia are influenced more by the base cost of vehicle ownership than by the variable cost of fuel, and that suburban commuting can be solved in relatively simple ways, reducing the base cost per household.

His third post talks about how suburbanites can meet most of their own needs for water, food and energy using resources that can easily be installed or implemented on a typical American suburban lot. This third post reminds me very much of how David Holmgren, a co-inventor of permaculture, made the same point regarding suburbia during a talk given in Australia in 2005 with Richard Heinberg. I remember listening to an MP3 recording of that talk in early 2007, shortly after I first heard the full story on Peak Oil, and imagining how a sustainable retrofit of suburbia would play out in my neighborhood. I still think that such an exercise in imagination would be very useful. Perhaps one day I will write a post on the challenges to re-fitting suburbia to adapt to an energy-constrained future. I will consider two real-life cases, a typical neighborhood in La Habra or Brea or Anaheim, California (an area with which I am quite familiar), and a typical neighborhood along Sandy Boulevard in Portland, Oregon.

There are three challenges I see right off the bat: first, that because most suburban dwellers are mortgage holders and not outright owners of their homes, an unstable economy might hinder their efforts to adapt their households to a low-energy future, and might even threaten their ability to keep their homes. Second, as the official economy continues its breakdown, these suburban dwellers would need to create means of supplying themselves with the sort of durable, hard goods needed by households, goods which are now mass-produced by the global economy. Third, there is the fact that even now, most suburban dwellers don't quite “get” the magnitude of the challenges to their present way of life, or the need for radical changes. I am thinking of conversations I had in 2007 with some of the people in my old neighborhood just before I moved.

Anyway, I think Jeff Vail's series covers some valuable ground, and considers questions that most of us will have to answer as we face the times now upon us, since we can't all go off to the woods and start eco-villages or other alternative living arrangements.

For those who want to see the Majora Carter speech, it can be found here: http://accidentalweblog.blogspot.com/2008/11/justice-is-what-love-looks-like-in.html.

For those who want to read Jeff Vail's series on “A Resilient Suburbia,” it can be found here: http://jeffvail.net/.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Threats and Hindrances to Bicycle Commuting

Of all the potentially helpful responses to climate change, Peak Oil and financial collapse, bicycle commuting is one of the handiest. Bicycles do not require liquid petroleum fuel to operate. Their usefulness in combating climate change is obvious – operating a bicycle generates no pollution. But there's much more. According to Divorce Your Car! by Katie Alvord, the family car consumes three times more space than the family home. But eight bicycles can be parked into the space occupied by one parked car. Other sources state that the energy and resources used to make one car can make up to 100 bicycles. Then there is the cost of owning a car, a cost which is often underestimated, but which runs into several thousands of dollars per year for each car when depreciation, maintenance, repairs, road taxes, insurance and licensing fees are considered in addition to fuel costs. A car-free person can commute by bicycle for under $100 a year.

But like all good things in this present fallen world, the bicycle faces threats and challenges. Those who wish to rely on the bicycle as transportation would do well to be aware of these hindrances, in order that they may cope with them. Therefore this post will consider a few threats and hindrances to bicycle commuting.

The American Bicycle Culture

Strange as it may seem, one of the first and most insidious threats to bicycle commuting in America is the American bicycle culture as it is represented by bike sellers. A newbie who is just getting into bike commuting is more than likely to encounter this culture upon his first visit to a local bike shop (also known as an LBS among bikers). I believe that this is especially true in Southern California. I believe that most bike shops are owned and staffed by people who still view the bicycle primarily as a means of recreation, and not as a utilitarian means of transportation.

Therefore people who walk into an LBS looking for a commuter bike will be confronted by several rows of lightweight carbon-fiber racer bikes costing over $1,000 apiece, or full-suspension mountain bikes in the same price range. If they don't find what they want in these two selections, they will find a row of old-school beach cruisers, or if they're really desperate, a row of kids' BMX bikes. Most of these bikes do not come with fenders or rack already installed, because it's clear that the manufacturers of these bikes never intended their riders to carry anything substantial.

The problem with all of these bikes is that they were not designed for rugged day-in-and-day-out, year-round use as everyday commuters. The racing bikes are particularly “particular.” Their skinny tires require very high pressure in order to reduce rolling resistance, and they are very vulnerable to flats. (I saw a guy fixing a flat this morning.) Their carbon-fiber frames and dainty wheel rims are quickly thrashed by a daily commute. These bikes are not very practical for riding anywhere else than a well-manicured velodrome. Bikes with a suspension fork or a full suspension are also problematic, since the extra componentry and complexity means extra maintenance headaches. It is also harder to mount fenders and racks on bikes with suspension components.

Those who ask the staff at most LBS's for commuting advice can usually gain clues to what the staff might say just by looking at the decorations on the walls of the LBS. These decorations usually consist of posters of sweaty, grim-faced skinny men in multicolored lycra bike racing clothes, riding in competition against each other. Or they are posters of people in full body suits almost like motorcycle sport suits, wearing helmets with face masks, riding mountain bikes down “technical” trails and covered in mud from head to toe. The word “extreme” is seen in lots of places on these posters. The staffers are usually hired on the basis of their devotion to the sport of “extreme” cycling, and they are of almost no use in advising people of how to commute by bike.

Ask them about what kind of fenders to put on a bike so that you will arrive at work relatively clean instead of having two muddy stripes on your body, and they will likely answer, “Dude! Fenders add weight – they slow you down!” Or ask about lights and you will get the same answer, or they will sell you a small, inadequate set of “safety” lights. (The next time I go to an LBS and hear a lecture about how what I want for my bike “adds weight and slows the bike,” I am going to say, “What kind of car do you drive?” When the LBS tech answers, I will say, “Man, your car has seats and doors! Don't they add weight? That'll slow you down!”)

Large bike manufacturers are also to blame for this culture of bike-as-toy. It is relatively easy and inexpensive to make a bike that is simple, utilitarian, incredibly hard-wearing and maintenance-free. But large manufacturers such as Trek and Giant are not terribly interested in simply making utilitarian bikes, since the market for such bikes would be quickly saturated, and since these manufacturers base their business model on unending growth, like the rest of the players of the game of capitalism. Therefore they are always stylistically “tweaking” their products, in order to make previous versions “obsolete.” The variations introduced into their products are not always practical or durable.

Take weight-saving innovations, for instance. Because of the industry-wide obsession with weight and speed, plastic and carbon-fiber components are increasingly being used, not only for racers but for hybrid and mountain bikes. However, carbon fiber is not as durable as advertised. Components made of resin-impregnated carbon fiber are not as durable as those made of steel. Minor scratches can render carbon-fiber forks unsafe and render carbon fiber bikes unrideable. And exposure to rain, ice, snow and solar UV radiation can introduce microscopic voids into the surface of such components, voids which grow over time until they have seriously weakened these components. When carbon fiber fails, it usually does so without warning (like the seatpost I used to have on my Surly LHT, which failed after only one rainy winter in Oregon). A failed carbon-fiber component cannot be repaired; it must be thrown away.

But last year Trek decided to capitalize on the recent strong surge in interest in commuting, and the company began marketing the Trek “Portland,” a “commuter-specific” bike with disc brakes and carbon fiber front fork. I discussed the potential disadvantages of disc brakes in my previous post, “Depression Bicycling.” In this post I am wondering why Trek decided to make a commuter bike with a carbon-fiber front fork, when it is an unnecessary innovation. I suspect that the disc brakes and carbon fiber were chosen simply to make the bike look “sexy” and “cutting-edge,” in order to sell more product to a saturated market. Now Trek is pushing “chainless” bikes which will have a carbon-fiber drive belt instead of a chain. Multi-speed models will have an internally-geared rear hub. However, in the event of a sudden worsening of our economic situation or a sudden drop in our oil supply, maintaining and/or replacing these carbon-fiber gizmos will turn into a nightmare.

One has to look hard to find independent bike shops and bike manufacturers who understand the concept of the bicycle as transportation And many of the manufacturers of transportation bicycles are overseas. Yet there are places in the United States which have a large concentration of understanding bike shops. The Pacific Northwest is one place in particular which has a large number of sellers of new transportation bikes and used, reconditioned steel-frame bikes, as well as a thriving, intelligent bike commuting culture. Perhaps the Northwest can be a light to the rest of the nation.

The Lack of Widespread Bicycle Infrastructure

Europe is frequently touted as the best region for bicycle commuting, because of the forethought shown by European urban and transportation planners in making a place for the bicycle. Europeans have been forced to do many intelligent things that are shunned by most of America. This has been due to the long-standing high cost of many resources in modern European society, resources like motor fuel, land, and living space. High costs and resource scarcity have only recently been experienced by Americans, and most of us refused to plan for the days now upon us, even though the warning signs have been evident for many years.

Therefore the transportation infrastructure in most American metropolitan areas is conducive to car transportation only, and is inconvenient if not downright dangerous to other forms of transit. In many cities and suburbs, there are no bike lanes at all. In some of these places there are not even sidewalks. Those who travel by means other than a car on roads in these areas are risking their lives. Katie Alvord's Divorce Your Car! sheds light on why this is so, and on the evil role that the major U.S. automakers have had in the design of much of the modern American urban/suburban landscape.

To be sure, there are remedies for this condition, but they involve diverting resources now devoted to automotive transport. For instance, many state vehicle codes mandate that bicycles be treated as traffic, with all the respect due to motorized traffic. And in order to make biking safer, bike lanes can be painted in many streets which do not have dedicated bike lanes. This would of course involve narrowing the lanes devoted to cars. On streets which are too narrow for a separate bike lane, “sharrows” could be painted on the extreme right hand lane to indicate that these lanes were to be shared by cars and bikes, and to reinforce the fact that bikes in such lanes had the right to “take” the whole lane in order to prevent unsafe passing. Also, city planners could devise a grid of complete routes throughout their urban areas so that bikes could get to any necessary place by practical, safe routes, and transportation departments could install the necessary signs and striping to complete these routes. This would remedy the situation seen in many urban/suburban areas nowadays where a bike lane goes for several blocks, then ends in a place that's dangerous for bikes.

Making such provisions for bikes will generate opposition, especially when space now devoted to cars is narrowed in order to provide space for bike transportation. Therefore, a key to seeing such provisions enacted is to build a strong bike advocacy presence in your locality, to push local governments to take the necessary steps to make room for bikes. It is ironic that places like Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington and Chicago, Illinois have seen the successful implementation of some of these measures, while a sunny, normally dry, seemingly ideal place like Southern California lags so far behind in making the road safe for cyclists.

Murderous Motorists

Sharrows, marked bike lanes and special signage are all good tools – yet they are worthless unless motorists respect and obey the message presented by these tools. The problem we have in this country is that there has been a general erosion of morals, ethics and care for others, and a general elevation of selfishness, impulsiveness and the pursuit of instant gratification. Ours is a nation of people who “do not fear God, nor respect man,” like the unrighteous judge in Luke 18:2. Such a nation buys the biggest, fastest, most powerful, most intimidating vehicles its members can afford, and these people engage in a daily game of “chicken” with each other. They believe the false promise that modern technology always delivers instant gratification, and when real life shows that this is not true, they throw adult-sized temper tantrums. Frequently these temper tantrums are expressed in the way people drive. “WHAT!!? You crossed the street on a WALK signal as I was waiting to make a right turn??! You dirty #@%*$& pedestrian!!! You slowed me down by three seconds!!! I'll cream you with the front bumper of my new Dodge Ram HEMI!!!”

As Dmitri Orlov said in a recent radio interview, Americans have a much stronger need than people of many other nations to be protected from each other. The police are supposed to do this, but nowadays one rarely sees the police on the street unless one calls the police oneself. Therefore one usually doesn't see the police enforcing traffic laws – including traffic laws designed to protect pedestrians and cyclists. In Portland, Oregon, city traffic engineers have devised several marked zones to protect bicyclists from being “right-hooked” by motorists, and have designated these zones by special signage and road striping. But look at the pictures below and you can see several motorists flagrantly disregarding these zones. I wonder if any of the Portland Police read The Well Run Dry...




These three pictures are of the intersection of Terwilliger Avenue and Taylor's Ferry Road in Portland, Oregon. The city recently painted bike boxes at this intersection to prevent cyclists from being right-hooked by motorists. The way it works is that when the light is red, cyclists move up to the front of the box, directly in front of waiting cars. The cars are prohibited by law from occupying the bike box while their light is red, and are forbidden to make a right turn on a red signal. Once the light turns green, bikes proceed forward and cars in the rear are free to turn right. Here we see motorists who either can't read English or couldn't bring themselves to wait. The lady in the silver car was talking on a cell phone while driving...

Here's a shot of another woman talking on a cell phone and violating the bike box on my side of the street.

Here's a guy who was about to run through the green bicycle crossing zone on the Hawthorne Bridge in front of a cyclist. A lady nearly right-hooked me in that very same zone about a month ago.

As I have said before, the bicycle holds great promise as a tool of adaptation to Peak Oil, financial collapse and the threat of climate change. Yet the tragedy is that the threats and hindrances I have mentioned may thwart the promise of the bicycle and hinder its effectiveness in addressing the challenges many Americans now face. The bicycle is like many of the other strategies of a safety net of alternative systems – strategies that hold great promise, yet which face significant threats and hindrances from an “official,” yet breaking system.

Sources: