Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The "Congress Created Dust Bowl"

My job has me back in Southern California this week. On the drive down, between Sacramento and Bakersfield, I saw again an intermittent series of signs that I had noticed on previous trips, signs which read, “CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL.” In some places, these signs were located next to former orchards, now dead or dying.

The signs told me a story, as I drove southward in 105 degree heat, beneath the plumes of smoke from a couple of distant fires. First, they were evidence of the stress under which large industrial agribusinesses are now operating in this time of resource constraints and altered climate. According to a USDA report, California's snowpack contained nearly 30 percent less water than normal this last March.

California now has over 36 million people, a sizable fraction of whom are Southern Californians. Each of them seems to want enough water to wash his SUV, fill up his pool and water his lawn. Some of them work for realtors and developers who want to get rich from enticing yet more people to move here. All these residents must compete with each other and with farmers over a dwindling supply, as the Sacramento and Colorado rivers are under stress from excessive use. Many of the competing commercial interests who rule the California economy would each like to maximize their share of the available water, as their commercial success depends on it. Yet it is no longer possible.

My friends and coworkers here are telling me that Los Angeles County and Orange County have now imposed mandatory water use restrictions on residents. There's a news report from April of this year stating that San Diego County will start reducing water deliveries to its residents, starting in July. On all sides are signs that the residents of this state will be forced to start living quite differently, quite frugally, even to the extent of changing the way they grow their food. Big agribusiness will not survive unchanged.

Yet here were these yellow and black signs in the desert (that's right – it's a desert), a visual howl of existential angst and rage against reality printed in bold block letters. It seems that the man who put the signs up believes that if Congress or the State government simply relaxed environmental restrictions designed to protect some of the endangered Sacramento River fish, happy days would be here again, and the desert would burst into magical bloom. This man has friends among watchers of Fox News and its talking heads. They don't understand that the endangered status of the fish is one of the symptoms of larger limits that they will have to face whether they want to or not. Those limits are not the fault of Congress.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Localism And Resilient Neighborhoods

This week, I'd like to resume discussion of building resilient neighborhoods as preparation for Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse. In this post, I will emphasize the importance of supporting local economies as a part of the building process. In an earlier post, Our Least Resilient Neighborhoods, I said the following: “Building resilient neighborhoods therefore consists of devising effective defenses against breakage [of neighborhoods], repairing the culture of the neighborhoods and fostering neighborhood self-sufficiency.” One key element of neighborhood self-sufficiency is financial self-sufficiency – that is, being as free as possible from the claims of the official money economy. This means either not having huge financial obligations, or having locally-owned, locally-controlled means of meeting the obligations one has, or both.

As a practical example, consider a homeowner who wants to become more self-reliant and less susceptible to economic collapse. Let's assume that his house is on a fairly decent lot (around 6000 to 7000 square feet), and that he has started “farming” his front and back yards in order to provide some of his own food. Let's also give this man a clothesline and some chickens in his backyard and assume that he has saved up a bit of money to pay for super-insulating his house and installing a simple rainwater catchment system under his roof gutters.

This is all well and good. The man is pursuing financial self-sufficiency by providing for his needs in a way that reduces his need to spend money over the long run. But let's assume that he “owns” his home only in the sense that he is paying a mortgage. If we give this guy a two bed, one bath house and assume that he bought it in Southern California between 2000 and 2007, he probably has a sizable mortgage payment (say, around $1800 a month if he bought it before prices really took off). That's a significant financial burden, a significant obligation to the official money economy. Even if we assumed that the homeowner in question owned his home outright, he would still have to pay property taxes as part of the cost of living in a city. Yearly taxes for this man's house would probably run between $2500 and $3000. That money would have to come from somewhere. If he didn't pay it, the County would foreclose on his house and he would be homeless.

So how does this guy get the money? Until recently, the answer to this was, “By participating in the official economy.” In the overwhelming majority of cases, that meant getting a job from an employer. Now, this employer demands a certain amount of work, as well as a certain level of personal preparation, skill and competence. The employee must spend some of himself in his labors and in his preparation to perform his labors competently (i.e., in schooling and self-study). The employee's labors generate wealth for the employer, who returns some of that wealth to the employee as compensation for his labors.

This arrangement works tolerably as long as the employer returns a fair share of the wealth generated by the employee's labors, and as long as the cost of goods and services required by the employee do not exceed his compensation from his employer. But whereas that may have been true of American employers and employees before 1980, it is certainly not true now. The trends of deregulation and globalism, pushed by corporations and corporatist politicians from 1980 onward, have produced a world in which an ever-larger share of the fruits of the labors of workers are skimmed off and sent to a small “club” of ever-richer ruling economic elites, while an ever-smaller portion of the wealth generated by those labors is returned to the laborers. Thus, for instance, there is an expanding class of recent college graduates who can't get work paying more than $10 or $15 an hour. (See http://legacy.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/livingtoday/050516/degree.shtml, http://www.impactlab.com/2007/04/30/study-growing-number-of-college-graduates-classified-as-poor/, and http://www.newser.com/story/58492/college-grads-face-years-of-lower-wages.html. Or if you're in college now, maybe you should skip reading these. I don't want to depress you.)

Meanwhile, the cost of necessities such as housing and health care skyrocketed during the period between 1980 and the last two years. In fact, the cost of health care is still climbing. And the rise in the cost of an education has outpaced the nominal national inflation rate. These rising costs have led to massive indebtedness, which does not make for a very resilient or self-reliant situation for most people. Organic farmers know that soils can become exhausted when they are over-farmed without returning returning adequate amounts of dead plant and animal matter back to the soil. In the same way, most American workers are becoming depleted and exhausted as the majority of the wealth generated by their labors is taken away from them by greedy faraway corporate masters who do not give back enough to maintain the workers on whom they depend. All these things mean that it has gotten much harder for people to meet their financial obligations to the official economy by working in that economy.

This is why localism has become such an attractive concept recently. The premise of localism is the local control and ownership of means of generating wealth, where profits generated by local businesses stay in the community in which these businesses reside. Thus the fruits of the labors of local workers remain in the communities of these local workers, providing them with the nourishment they need in order to continue their labors. If, for instance, a person worked for a fairly-run local business and her labor generated $50,000 a year in wealth for the business, it is far more likely that she'd be compensated with a fair share of that $50,000 than it would be if she worked for some multinational, publicly traded corporation. Thus it is far more likely that she'd be able to pay her bills – including her housing bill, whether that meant rent, a mortgage, or property tax, and that she could do this without having to work like a dog.

One other important aspect of the “official” economy is that it requires continual growth to function properly, and that it is now breaking because it can no longer grow. The masters of this economy – the majority shareholders, CEO's, corporate presidents and so forth – still expect and demand ever-increasing profits. Therefore, they have not only been cutting laborers from their workforce wherever they can, but they have been driving the remaining laborers ever harder. Those who are still bound to the global economy are therefore increasingly losing control over their lives and their time. (An example: “WANTED: Certified QXZ Engineer for ABC process control. Must be goal-oriented, self-starter, highly motivated to bring the client the best possible value for the lowest price. Must be willing to travel at least 20 percent of the time. ABC is a fast-paced, dynamic place for hungry, rising stars willing to grab all they can.” Translation: “You will live in a hotel at least one week per month and work like a dog at least 60 hours a week. You will also be on call evenings and weekends.”) Proper participation in a properly organized local economy allows people to regain some control over their lives while meeting their needs.

So what are some desirable characteristics of a locally-owned business? First, it must truly be 100 percent locally owned – not a mere franchise of some national or global business. McDonald's, New Seasons Market and Whole Foods Market don't count. Neither does Valero Petroleum, NBC or Clear Channel. Second, it must be entirely locally controlled. This follows from the first condition, since those who own a business get to run the business. A business run by faraway masters is not local. Of the various local business models, a cooperative model is one of the most attractive. Examples of cooperatives in Portland include Citybikes Workers Co-op and People's Food Co-op. Third, it must return a fair share of its profits back to its employees. At the very least, it must be able to pay a “living wage.” Lastly, its profits must be spent predominantly within the community in which it resides. A business which sends the majority of its profits out of the community is a drain on the community, and is not truly local. This also means that local businesses need a supplier base that is also predominantly local in order to keep profits within the local community as much as possible.

In light of these characteristics, what can be said about some of the recent advertising by large corporations who want to portray themselves as “local”? In my post, "Localism" And Truthfulness, I described a few corporations whose advertising I had recently heard or seen. Feel free to check out that post and answer for yourself whether these businesses are truly “locally owned.” But I want to ask another question, namely, how “local” does a business have to be in order to be truly “local”?

I ask this question because of a billboard I saw last week as I was on the way home from work. It was an advertisement for Darigold Farms, and it showed a burly guy with a mustache standing in a field of some kind of grain, with the caption, “Your Local Farmer” underneath. Now, there are some good things to be said for Darigold. First, it is a farmer-run cooperative that offers hormone-free milk among its product lines, and second, it does have a number of operations that are “local” to the Pacific Northwest. But is it truly “local” on smaller scales, such as the individual cities in which its operations are based? How much local control is exercised in each place where such companies have their operations? How much local say is there over how locally-generated profits are used? These are questions that successful cooperatives will have to answer for themselves, as some of them grow beyond the boundaries of the communities in which they first started.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Return of the NINJA (or at least his cousin)

Beware – the NINJA is back! Or at least, his cousin. No, I'm not talking about some Oriental warrior dressed in dark, baggy clothes, some disciple of ancient methods of killing people barehanded, taught by some “college of violent knowledge.” Nor am I talking about the return of some indie, Asian-themed horror movie.

But I'm sure you will all remember the NINJA as I begin to describe him. He is the No Income, No Job, No Assets adjustable-rate, subprime loan foisted off on many working-class families by predatory lenders in the troubled years before our present economic collapse. He was seemingly run out of town in 2008 through the reluctant posturing of Federal lawmakers pushed by a wave of public outrage. But he now seems to be sneaking back upon us, albeit in a somewhat mangled form. Or maybe that's his one-armed cousin I see.

Observe the letter below:

I recently got this letter in the mail. I am sure it was sent to everyone in my neighborhood. (By the way, I live in a working-class neighborhood.)

At the top, you can see a statement in bold capital letters: “FHA BENEFITS UPDATE STIMULUS 2009.” Below are the words, “Passed by Congress and signed into law by the President.” The purpose of these words is to fool their readers into thinking that this letter is part of some Federal program. Next come the words, “HUD-approved Flagship Financial Group has been directed to:

  1. Get FHA homeowners instant relief yadda yadda...

  2. Yadda yadda...

This is a continuation of their opening ploy. “Flagship Financial Group has been directed...” By whom? By themselves and their own lust for your dollars? Certainly not by the Government!

Their “program” is available to anyone who has an FHA loan, with “No Appraisal, No Income Verification, No Credit Score Qualification, and No Out-Of-Pocket Costs,” according to the letter. This is not quite a NINJA loan, since it is meant for people with FHA loans who presumably are living in “starter” homes. Maybe we could call this a “NINJ” loan. The letter further advertises “4.375% Fixed Rates!” Although I don't owe any money on my house, I called their 1-800 number to ask about this 4.375% rate – just as a “private detective” exercise. When I asked whether this was a 30-year rate, the agent replied that due to present market conditions, they couldn't offer 30-year loans with this rate. However, they were willing to offer “hybrid” loans with this 4.375% rate for the first five years, then an adjustable rate afterward.

The agent's use of the word “hybrid” was quite creative (almost as creative as the use I heard this past week for the term “locally owned,” as I described in this post: "Localism" And Truthfulness). To me this sounds the same as the dishonest adjustable-rate mortgages with tempting introductory “teaser rates” pushed onto working-class families in the earlier part of this decade.

What all of this tells me is that in our present time of manifest economic distress, there are scam artists out there who are continuing to fleece ordinary people by playing on the crisis and on the coping strategies employed by these ordinary people. It is important to remember the basic coping strategies for these times, the strategies of frugality, which consist of paying down debts, becoming self-sufficient and living within one's means. Remember also that if something looks too good to be true, it usually is – and trying out things that are too good to be true may cost you everything you own.

One other thing this letter shows is how effective our lawmakers have been in reining in the excesses of the financial “industry” – which is to say, that they haven't done anything at all.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Localism" And Truthfulness

I'm in Southern California this week for a job assignment. I drove down on Sunday. Yes, that's right – I drove instead of flying. Having witnessed the death of several airlines during the last oil price super-spike, I figured that the surviving airlines may be going beyond such well-known cost-cutting measures as charging extra for all luggage and cutting back on in-flight snacks. They may also be cutting back on maintenance and mechanics' salaries. Accuse me of being overly suspicious if you like. I don't want to find out the hard way that my suspicions are right.

Anyway, I was driving through some town – I don't remember if it was Grant's Pass or Ashland – when I saw a very curious sight. It was a billboard advertising a TV station, a local NBC affiliate. Among other things, the billboard proudly portrayed this station as “locally-owned,” with a strong “community connection.” I thought it strange that the “locally-owned” label was being applied to a TV station that's part of a national media corporation's broadcasting network.

But that wasn't all. A bit farther on, in Redding or thereabouts, I was listening to a classic rock station as its DJ was giving the station identification announcement, which enthusiastically stated that this station was “locally programmed.” Again, I was struck by the oddness of this announcement, especially since this station sounded very much like other oldies stations I've heard on trips between Portland and So. Cal., and it was playing the very same “oldies greatest hits countdown” I had heard on another oldies station a minute or two beforehand. This was followed a while later by a commercial for a Chevy dealership which boasted that it was “locally owned and family operated.”

These instances show how deeply and swiftly the “localism” meme is penetrating the American consciousness. Many ideas that would have been considered unacceptably countercultural even a few years ago are now going mainstream, as more and more Americans are looking for alternatives to our breaking “official” systems. Unfortunately, the masters of those existing official systems often try to co-opt the alternatives. Frequently, this co-opting takes the form of re-branding and re-packaging the official systems to make them look like the alternative.

This, of course, is known in plain English as lying. I think I heard and saw a few lies on Sunday. It is now well known that building and supporting local economies is one of the keys to building resilient communities that are able to survive the exigencies of Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse. One key to supporting local economies is for local residents to buy from local businesses. But I always thought a “local business” was defined thus:

  • 100 percent local ownership (no “owners” or “part-owners” who are far away)

  • 100 percent local control (as in management and oversight)

  • Characterized by a revenue stream which flows from local residents to the local business and back again, with the vast majority of that revenue stream staying in the local community.

Based on this definition, I don't see how the businesses whose ads I saw and heard could try to sell themselves as “locally owned.” Maybe the phrase “locally owned” is now under attack, just as big agribusiness is trying to hijack the term “locally grown” (see http://earthfirst.com/is-food-still-%E2%80%98local%E2%80%99-if-it%E2%80%99s-grown-by-a-nationwide-brand/, for instance), and as big agribusiness destroyed the term “organic” (with Federal government help) in its bid to eliminate an alternative that threatened the factory farm.

But I'm open to correction – I freely admit that I may be wrong in my assessment. Would someone therefore please tell me how a TV station affiliated with a national media company can be “locally owned?” Does the revenue generated by such a station stay entirely within the community in which the station is located? How is a radio station owned by some giant network like Clear Channel “locally programmed,” especially when you can hear its very same playlist replicated on other stations owned by the same network? Does “local programming” mean the times once or twice an hour when the DJ asks people to phone in their song requests and someone calls saying “Yo, dude, could you play some Billy Joel?” Is a dealer of autos made by one of the Big Three automakers (not so big now) really “locally owned” in the fullest sense of the word?

* * *

I'm planning to go out to lunch with some co-workers tomorrow. It will be a good opportunity to catch up on personal news. But I will also ask about the culture of So. Cal., and will try to see if there have been any healthy changes. I may write about my findings in another blog post.

Friday, June 12, 2009

9,000 Miles Farther On

In 2005, as gas prices topped $3.00 a gallon in Southern California, I became a bicycle commuter. In January 2007 I bought the bike that at present is my main steed. This week I logged my 9,000th mile on this bike. Most of those miles have been commuting miles (to the store, or to work), although I have done a few pleasure rides. A lot has happened over those 9,000 miles. Looking back, a few highlights come to mind:

  • In 2005, I didn't “get” the real story behind gas prices – I was far from putting cause and effect together to get a clear picture of what was going on. But in 2007, I was one of the Southern Californians who read the Los Angeles Times piece “O Pioneers In Pasadena” about the Dervaes family and their urban homestead. In addition, in late 2006 I had read Divorce Your Car! by Kate Alvord. In February 2007, I discovered Global Public Media and all the podcasts explaining Peak Oil and climate change. Believe me, all of that set my hair on fire!

  • In January 2007, I knew next to nothing about food gardening or “food security.” I only knew how to grow Bermuda grass, how to kill weeds with Roundup and a little about how to trim rose bushes. Over these last two years, I've had a bit of a crash course in growing my own food.

  • From 2005 to 2007, I had been drifting steadily leftward politically. My discovery of Peak Oil and validation of climate change accelerated and amplified that “drift” into something much more definite.

  • In the spring of 2007, as I was learning about Peak Oil, I saw gas prices in So. Cal. drift upward to nearly $4 a gallon – just as I discovered the World Without Oil “alternate-reality game” website. At the time I thought we were actually about to “live” the game right then. The world situation didn't deteriorate with the speed depicted in that “game”, but that's not to say that things didn't deteriorate.

  • In January 2007, I was having to cope with a few dysfunctional elements in my neighborhood, yet I didn't think too much of it. By May 2007, I was asking myself, “If the new information I have about oil is really true, can this neighborhood really handle it? Can these people?”

  • In January 2007, I lived in Southern California. By September 2007 I was living in Portland, Oregon. In January 2007, I had a 401K. By September 2007, I didn't. In January 2007, I had a mortgage. By February 2008, I didn't. The crashing noise I heard from May to August was the sound of falling home prices and stock values. I got out in the bare nick of time. One of my motivations was a piece written by Sharon Astyk, titled, “Pick Up Your Hat.” The real estate lady who sold my house couldn't quite understand my sense of desperate urgency. Friends who heard what my selling price was kept saying, “You should ask for more. You're practically giving your house away!”

  • In January 2007, oil prices were in the $60-65/barrel range. By year's end, they were over $90 a barrel. In January 2007, media coverage of an economic slowdown focused mainly on falling house prices. By December 2007, there were reports of tent cities for the homeless.

  • In the spring of 2007, as I was learning about Peak Oil and its likely effects, I regurgitated what I was learning in the presence of any ears willing to listen, including those of my So. Cal. co-workers. I think many of them thought I was slightly nuts. I wonder what they think now.

  • In January 2007, those who were tuned in to the “collapse” meme were a relatively small, “cutting-edge” minority. Nowadays, almost everyone I talk to acknowledges that something is seriously wrong with our present society and economy. As Joe Walsh once wrote, “Well there's a change in the wind, you know the signs don't lie/Such a strange feelin' and I don't know why it's takin'/Such a long time. Backyard people and they work all day/Tired of the speeches and the way that the reasons keep changin'/To make the words rhyme.”

  • From the spring of 2007 onward, I read the predictions of many of the vanguards of the “collapse” meme. A surprising number of them came to pass, although not always with the speed or in the way that the prognosticators predicted. Our situation is now much more precarious than it was a few years ago. My view of things has grown darker than it was even in 2007.

  • In January 2007, the President of the United States was a somewhat clumsy liar and stooge of the rich and powerful, a member of a political party whose holders of elected office were fellow stooges. In June 2009, the names of office-holders have changed, but has anything else (other than our current President's charm)?

  • In January 2007, I got a Surly Long Haul Trucker with a carbon-fiber seatpost, indexed trigger-shifters and a Fizik Rondine saddle. From then to now, I have ditched the carbon fiber seatpost in favor of a good old-fashioned steel one, have switched the saddle to a Brooks B-17, have gone from Schwalbe Marathon 26” x 1.5” to Marathon 26” x 1.75” tires, and have switched the shifters to Shimano Dura-Ace friction shifters on Paul's Thumbies mounts. I also added a dynohub on the front so I won't have to constantly remember to charge batteries for my lights. The people at Citybikes joke that my bike is built to ride out the collapse of civilization.

  • In January 2007, my commute to work was a 12-mile journey, one-way. By September 2007, my commute had lengthened to a 17-mile journey, one-way. (Thanks be for the MAX and the buses around here!) I get rained on a lot more now than I did in 2007. And there are more hills, including some seriously gnarly ones.

I'm sure I could list many other changes. And now as I write this, I think of teens whose conversations I have overheard recently on the bus, talking about all the plans they've made and all the fun they're going to have this summer. I think of co-workers in my present office with whom I get into discussions regarding the present world situation, and how many of these co-workers assume that the future will resemble the recent past, and that we'll somehow muddle through our present difficulties without a drastic lifestyle adjustment. Then I start thinking about the predictions of the Hirsch Report and the Oil Report of the Energy Watch Group, along with the Barclays “Burning Violins” report and the CIBC report titled, “Oil Prices: Another Spike Ahead.” I think about the last several EIA Weekly Petroleum Status Reports, and how almost all of them have shown a drop in U.S. petroleum stocks of at least 4 million barrels per week. And I watch the movement of prices at local gas stations – sometimes inching upward, sometimes leaping upward.

The last 9,000 miles have certainly had interesting scenery. I have a feeling that the next few thousand miles will bring us all to views like nothing we've ever seen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Neighborhood Resilience and Safety Nets - A "Lab" Question

Among the writers whose work addresses Peak Oil and its related crisis are some who still view these crises as abstractions or events of the misty future. When they discuss possible responses to these crises, they write in high-level terms about what policies mankind (and its leading classes) should adopt, rather than delving into concrete things individuals should do. I'll start this post by suggesting that the future imagined by many who have written about Peak Oil and its related issues is here now. The economic dislocation caused by climate change, Peak Oil and other resource constraints is happening now. And the behavior to date of the masters of our present economic and governmental systems in responding to our present crisis shows exactly what we can expect from these masters as the crisis continues to unfold – namely, little to no help at all.

As writers like Sharon Astyk have noted, Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse will not manifest themselves as some new and exotic crisis, but will look to many like ordinary human suffering that steadily gets worse. Successful adaptation to this suffering will not depend on grand governmental policy initiatives so much as the local responses of individuals, neighborhoods and communities. This adaptation must have both an individual and a community component. Being a prepared individual in the midst of an unprepared neighborhood has only limited value. In my articles on neighborhood resilience and building safety nets of alternative systems, I have attempted to explore the process of adaptation as seen by dwellers in urban and suburban neighborhoods, as well as outlining some of the hindrances to this adaptation.

Now it is time to take this study entirely out of the realm of the theoretical and to ground it firmly in the practical. Therefore I want to consider three real neighborhoods in three real cities in the United States. These are cities with which I have personal experience, having visited all three and having lived in two of them. However, the exact details of the neighborhoods under consideration will be somewhat fictionalized in this post. I want to consider a hypothetical resident in each of these three locales, a resident who one day began to become “Peak Oil-aware” or “climate change-aware” or more generally, “collapse-aware.” How that resident did so may vary according to a number of factors. Perhaps he was shocked into awareness by the run-up in gasoline prices in 2008. Or maybe she ran into a friend or relative who suddenly dived into urban homesteading with both feet, and her curiosity was aroused. Or maybe he was hanging out at a bookstore and just happened to pick up a book written by a “collapsnik.”

Anyway, let's assume that this person had or is having his or her awakening sometime between the beginning of 2007 and now. The person comes to realize that he must radically alter and simplify his life, or that she must not only alter her life but must also reach out to her neighbors and educate them about the events now unfolding. Let's say that the “collapse” message comes to this person with the same sort of urgency with which it hit me – as, in early 2007, I began to devour everything I could get my hands on concerning Peak Oil, as I followed the “World Without Oil” scenario website with all the devotion of a sports fan watching his team in the playoffs, as I downloaded podcast after podcast from Global Public Media, as I watched the weekly fluctuations in gas prices, and so on. One of the chief questions this person will likely ask is, “If these things are for real, can I successfully prepare for and adapt to these things here, right where I live? And can I successfully educate my neighbors so that we can adapt together?” What sort of answer to these questions do you think such a person will find, given the following scenarios?

Scenario 1: Willow Street, La Habra, California

You are a technical specialist for structural engineering at a CAD (computer-aided design) software reseller's office located in Costa Mesa. You live in La Habra, having bought a house on Willow Street near La Habra High School. Your morning commute takes between forty-five minutes and an hour and forty minutes, and it takes about the same amount of time to get home. It is early 2008, and you have been a homeowner for five years. In early 2008, the price of oil is already over $100 a barrel and gasoline prices are floating up toward $4 a gallon. You don't make very much, and because you bought your house for over $250K, a large portion of your paycheck goes toward the mortgage. You decide that you can't take the continual hit at the gas pump, but you don't know what to do, other than look for a job closer to home.

One day you are at Borders' Bookstore at Beach and Imperial, looking for a book on ornamental plants for your wife. You pass by a section full of books on declining oil supplies and the impending energy crisis. Your eye is attracted to a book with an unusual title, “Divorce Your Car!” You buy the plant book for your wife, but you are intrigued by the “car” book, and you buy it for yourself. As you read it, you are introduced to several new concepts, including the concept of “Peak Oil.” For some reason, this concept sticks in your mind to the extent that you do a Google search on it at lunch one day. What you find astounds, disturbs and profoundly moves you.

At home, you begin making immediate changes. First, you put a clothesline in your back yard. Then you start trying to kill the Bermuda grass so you can plant some vegetables. You start talking with one of your neighbors who lives across the street from you about the real reasons for the high gas prices, as well as where you think the economy is heading. In your conversations, you are always asking yourself, “Does my neighbor 'get' it? Would he be interested in joining me in helping the neighborhood get ready?”

But there is a big neighborhood problem, namely, a single woman with a teenage son who lives three houses down from you and whose son attends La Habra High. He has recently gotten into the habit of throwing big weekend drinking parties at his house, with his mom's full knowledge and permission. Lots of his friends and classmates show up, driving recklessly up and down the street as they arrive, and frequently urinating and/or vomiting on residents' properties as they leave. Fights are not uncommon, and the police are regularly called to that house on the weekends.

You also notice that the steps you are taking are highly unusual for your neighborhood, as most of the other residents are trying to grow room additions on their property, and not vegetables. One of your next door neighbors is annoyed by the clothesline and the vegetables in your backyard. One day you and your wife come home to find that this woman and her husband have replaced the chain link fence between your houses with a seven foot-high redwood fence.

You want to stop driving to work, but you live over 24 miles away from your office, and public transit is slow and disjointed. At last you settle on riding the Metrolink from the Fullerton station to Tustin, then heading to the office from the Tustin station. From your house to the Fullerton station and from the Tustin station to the office, you plan to travel by bike. Your wife is a bit hesitant about this at first (because she doesn't want you to become an accident statistic), but you decide to give it a go. The leg from your house to Fullerton isn't too dangerous, but going from the Tustin station along Jamboree Road and Main Street in Costa Mesa, you sometimes have to ride on the sidewalk, because there are a few parts with no bike lane and the cars go pretty fast. You wind up pedaling over 24 miles each workday. It's a brutal commute in the summertime.

Scenario 2: Olmstead Avenue, Los Angeles, California

You are a black single mother with a teenage son. You live on Olmstead Avenue, in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, in a house you have owned for seventeen years. You are an IT support staff member at a hospital near the downtown area. You are pushing your son to excel in school, and he is responding well for the most part, though he sometimes resents your pushing. You tend to be stricter with him than other parents are with their children, believing that if you don't hold him to a high standard of behavior, he will find himself being judged and treated more harshly for youthful indiscretions than his classmates who aren't black. You believe this to be true even now, years after the Rodney King beating and the “changes” in the LAPD.

It is January 2007, and while reading the Los Angeles Times on a Sunday, you find an article titled, “O Pioneers In Pasadena,” about the Dervaes family, who have turned their house into an “urban homestead.” The article arouses your interest and lingers in your mind for several days. Intrigued, you do a Google search on the Dervaes family and on Jules Dervaes in order to find out more about them. Your search leads you to the Global Public Media website, where you find not only a podcast of an interview with Mr. Dervaes, but much, much more! What you find astounds, disturbs and profoundly moves you.

You start making radical changes in your life and home. Your son initially reacts by looking at you as if you were slightly crazy. It's hard for him to grasp the need to reuse and repair things, to voluntarily make do with less, when he sees all his friends getting the latest shiny new “stuff.” You fare somewhat better with the neighbors, several of whom you have known for years, many of whom are already starting to be squeezed by the incipient economic downturn. You form an “Olmstead Avenue Gardening Club” with some of your neighbors, and you all enthusiastically plant whatever you think you can easily grow without accidentally killing it. Soon your yards are full of cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes and sunflowers. One yard even has some corn and squash.

In early September of 2007, you and your neighbors decide to have a little streetside “Urban Farmers' Market” to show off your produce. You plan your “Market” for a Saturday in early October. Word gets around the neighborhood, and people from several streets away express interest in dropping by. On the day of the “Market, you all set up several tables in the front yards of your house and the houses of your next door neighbors, and there's a large, joyful crowd. Your son is also there along with his friends, some of whom have the typical “urban” uniform consisting of sideways baseball caps, baggy shorts, and long, unbuttoned shirts or long tees or tank tops with Lakers colors. These young men are not being disorderly in any way – in fact, they are helping set up tables and set out vegetables – but they attract the notice of a passing LAPD squad car. Suddenly, several LAPD units show up, and officers begin questioning people, frisking some and harassing all the young men, including your son. The officers respond very rudely to your protests that you are doing nothing wrong, nothing any more out of the ordinary than any block party or multi-family garage sale. In fact, they threaten to arrest you for disorderly conduct.

Scenario 3: SE 88th Avenue, Portland, Oregon

You are a freight rail dispatcher at the Port of Portland, Oregon. You own a home on SE 88th Avenue, in the Lents district of Portland, across the street from Lents Park. You have owned your home for nearly 30 years, having bought it with the aid of GI Bill benefits you received after you got out of the Air Force. Though your Port job paid well enough for you to have relocated several times to larger and more expensive housing, you have never felt the urge to move. Now you are glad that your house is almost paid for; in fact, you have enough saved up to pay it off outright if you need to.

In the latter half of 2008, you notice a steadily worsening drop in shipping and container traffic at the Port, compared to a year ago. The drop in traffic grows severe enough to force some employees, such as yourself, onto an involuntary part-time schedule, while other employees are laid off altogether. You know that the economy has something to do with your situation, and during your breaks and lunch periods, you and your workmates discuss what is wrong with the economy, as well as how to fix it. One day in November, an engineer for one of the freight lines overhears your discussions, and he starts talking about impending economic collapse. Because you and he are old buddies, he loans you a book written by a “collapsnik,” and you read it over a couple of weekends. What you find astounds, disturbs and profoundly moves you.

You start making radical changes in your life and home. This turns out to be relatively easy in Portland, with its well-connected system of mass transit and bicycle routes, in addition to its strong base of community and volunteer groups. You soon find out about organizations such as Growing Gardens and the Portland Fruit Tree Project, and after attending their classes, you are able to plant your first garden.

Several of your neighbors catch the gardening “bug” (several others already had it), and you all begin talking together about the present economic situation and what you can do about it. You make your last house payment in March 2009, and host a “Burn the Mortgage” party.

But in April, you and your neighbors find out that the City wants to turn Lents Park into a baseball stadium for a minor-league professional team. This news is profoundly disturbing, as both you and your neighbors can't afford to sell your houses and relocate, and you are wondering what sort of adverse effects you will all suffer from having a 9,000 seat stadium right next to your homes. You are especially grieved about Lents Park. Your kids played in that park. When your young granddaughter visits from time to time, you take her to that park just to sit and read stories or play. What will become of the place now?

Questions for Discussion

  1. What are the destabilizing influences in each neighborhood?

  2. What structural barriers to Peak Oil/economic collapse adaptation exist in each neighborhood?

  3. If we assume that the persons in each of these scenarios could relocate, would you advise them to? To where would you advise them to relocate?

  4. Assuming that these people cannot afford to relocate, what strategies would you suggest for helping them to adapt, to build local safety nets and a resilient neighborhood?

  5. What other factors or elements would you insert into each of these scenarios? Notice that in these scenarios I haven't seriously examined the effects of massive job losses, polluted land or altered climate.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Tarnish On The Golden State

Much has been written and said lately about the budget crisis in the State of California, and the drastic cuts in government spending needed to address the budget shortfall. Though I am a recent transplant from California, I still have a significant interest in knowing how this story will turn out. A few things come immediately to mind.

First, I'm curious to know how the growth in the prison-industrial complex contributed to this crisis. According to the 2009 Budget Act, the Corrections budget grew by nearly 30 percent from 2005 to 2009. This is even though FBI statistics show that at least in 2008, the number of crimes per capita fell. Now the Governor is proposing drastic cuts to the corrections budget, and the draconian “3 Strikes” laws and other harsh punishments sponsored by right-wing firebrands and approved by California voters are proving to be both impractical and unaffordable. However, the Corrections Corporation of America remains hopeful that business will turn around for them. (See http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-crime2-2009jun02,0,7051335.story and http://seekingalpha.com/article/136300-corrections-corporation-of-america-q1-2009-earnings-call-transcript)

Second, the Governor is saying that because of shortfalls in revenue, all sorts of social services will have to be eliminated, as well as state parks, libraries, school aid, medical care and so forth. If these things must go and yet the State is still receiving money, I wonder then what expenditures they will actually keep. Their revenues may have been less than desired, but they are not zero. What are the citizens of California going to get for their money?

Third, I wonder if the impending loss of services is due to Californians being just as pressed by financial problems as everyone else, and thus being unable to afford the taxes necessary to keep their current social services. Or is it that Californians have gotten used to getting something for nothing? The same right-wing firebrands who have pushed draconian criminal penalties have also successfully thwarted many attempts to increase taxes over the years. (Proposition 13 is an early example.) How will the citizens of the state respond when they can no longer get something for nothing?