“Future Perfect”: Peak oil, Mayberry, and a saner world

Peak-oil believers have multiplied like religious revivalists across America and the world, describing on their websites how they became, in the language of
conversion, “peak oil aware.” Still, the news coverage falls back on old stereotypes—
environmentalist, survivalist, homesteader, and homeschooler—often dismissing peak oil, like most useful ideas, as an obsession of the far Left or far Right.

The simpler truth is that peak-oil converts are often young people reviving the personal habits and self-sufficient skills of their grandparents’ generation, thinking seriously about their tap water, transportation, income, food, heat, and electricity, and realizing how little would survive the end of fossil fuels. They anticipate that population trends, climate change, and other problems will compound the crisis, creating what Kunstler has called the Long Emergency. While others are preoccupied with the hot-button lifestyle issues of the moment, they are planting gardens, buying foreclosed farms, learning traditional crafts, taking crash courses in survival skills, and soberly preparing while silently counting down.

In this wonderful piece (Sorry, subscriber-access only! Go subscribe to this fine, anti-war conservative organ!), from the 25 August The American Conservative, Brian Kaller, nonetheless warning of the impending peak oil “crisis”, sets himself apart, marvelously, from the likes of Kunstler (“Tattooing has traditionally been a marginal activity among civilized people, the calling card of cannibals, sailors, and whores. The appropriate place for it is on the margins, in the back alleys, the skid rows. The mainstreaming of tattoos (on main street) is a harbinger of social dysfunction.”) — whom I very much respect, whose writing, particularly in The Geography of Nowhere has influenced me tremendously –, prognosticating that “peak oil will probably not be a crash . . . but a series of small breakdowns, price hikes, and local crises.” [My emphasis. – NPO]

Kaller, as I (and numerous others, including John) have, laments the destructive ways intrinsic in agri-business; however, he particularly strikes a chord with me when he asserts that

[w]e need a common vision that avoids post-apocalypse yarns as well as “Star Trek” fantasies in favor of something both realistic and hopeful. Handled right, peak oil could bring a revival of small-town America, local farming, small businesses, and an economy that centers around Main Street rather than Wall Street. It wouldn’t require us suddenly to turn Amish. With solar, wind, and nuclear power, we can maintain the Internet, commuter rail, and other technologies and continue the global exchange of ideas.

So, for our new vision during this national crisis, I nominate “The Andy Griffith Show.” No, really, I’m serious.

Is this simple suggestion, that we model our communities after that over which Andy Taylor presided, rather than after some abstraction, based not on people, but on technology and “progress”, not that about which conservatism truly is? Rather undeniably, not everyone one the right accedes to the position that peak oil truly threatens our way of life; I disagree with them, but, wishing to reach out and to establish common ground, suggest that, even if we, who forewarn against the “local crises”, say not sooth, but preach of doom that shall pass, may be right in urging a return to Kaller’s Mayberry-like world not out of commercial necessity, but, instead, out of cultural necessity.

What has come to represent American “conservatism” descends less from Burke than from those Jacobins whom he detested, against whom that great sage took took to his pen: They seek to spread democracy, that most debase-able of governments, one which, often enough, they fail to exercise at home, the world across, giving birth to empire as they bring death to community. Particularly in the wake of Senator McCain’s announcement that he selected Palin to run with him, the right has offered incessant peans to small-town America, all the while sending small-town Americans, including Governor Palin’s son, to fight foreign battles, shipping small-town American jobs abroad as part of ideological “free” trade, and, generally, furthering distancing itself from the actual, real values, whereof Kaller composes, that emanate from and denote small-town America. Look homeward, America: Look homeward, conservatives. Harry Kazazian has. The facts that seem to indicate the truthiness of these nonsensical forecasts of peak oil have left him with little choice.

(Page Two)

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Who gives a damn about property rights, any-way?

This is, I think, particularly in the aftermath of Kelo, an important question to consider. And I say this not simply because I disagree with that atrocious (but hardly original) decision offered by the left wing of the Court, but, also, because of the some-times outrageous reactions, to wit, along the lines of “I vow to do every thing I can to stop all exercise of eminent domain.” (It is, undeniably, a necessary, and good power, however abused it, potentially, may be.) Moreover, I wonder, really, what relevance has the notion of the right to property in this day?

When the Founders composed the Constitution, they inserted protections against eminent domain, that is, protection of private property. The belief in the right to private property, of the importance of property and of protecting this right, marked an important, overlapping concern of what we can classical liberalism and conservatism (rooted in Burke, and, perhaps, Bolingbroke, too — I defer to Daniel on this; I’ve read nothing of Bolingbroke’s, yet). Belloc, Chesterton, and their Distributist compatriots shared this belief, defending, adamantly, the rights of private property, and, furthermore, supporting a system of widely distributed. Berry and Röpke, especially, echo such sentiments. However, all of these defenders of property concerned themselves, not idly, with a necessarily too-broad conception of the word, but, primarily with productive property: The family farm, the (small,) locally owned and operated store, the craftsman or artisan’s workshop, the (small) laborer-owned factory. I mean not at all to suggest that they had no concern for a man’s non-productive estate, but, merely, that when they spoke and wrote passionately and unequivocally about the sanctity of private property, they referred, primarily, to the productive, personal forms of property owned and employed by the (semi-)self-supporting person (or family).

The widespread distribution of property, in the sense envisioned by the Distributists and their successors, hardly exists today, in a world of agri-business and corporate chain giants. The craftsman and artisan, by and large, have been replaced by facilities of mass-production. Of course, exceptions exist, but private property, as we generally think of it (and as was the subject of debate in Kelo), comprises little more than our homes and the lots whereupon they sit. (Mortgages existing on so many properties, even this home-ownership notion is not quite the coming to fruition of that great American dream.)

So, if we have lost the battle against the consolidation of productive property into the hands of a relative few, why should I — or any-one — really give a damn about the sanctity of private property rights? Now, I am sympathetic (sufficiently so, I grant, to disagree with Kelo on sentimental, as well as Constitutional grounds) with Ms. Kelo and the others whom New London removed from their homes, but, really, I reiterate, Who cares? I, certainly, should hate to see my (parents’) home, which my family has held for more than one hundred years, or my paternal grandfather’s farm, in the family just as long, fall victim to “progress” (which I, fortunately, needn’t to fear because, well, North Judson, IN, ain’t seen much “progress” lately). Nonetheless, as “all-American”, and, mayhap, charming, as it be, the idea of home as a man’s castle is, I submit, fairly farcical, especially, again, when the chances that the real owner of his domain is the First National Bank of Anytown, USA, are as high as they are.

Were what is true of my family’s home and my grandfather’s farm (and the dilapidated farm, near Carlinville, IL, owned by my maternal grandfather and great-aunt, neither of whom has seen the property in at least a decade) more frequently the case, I should, here, offer a defense of the sanctity of private property, in the post-productive property age, on communitarian grounds, videlicet, averring that sparing homeowners the threat of having their piece of the social fabric helps to re-enforce that fabric. On its face, as truncated as I shall leave it, the point seems to be weak, but, I believe, I — or, at least, someone more qualified than I — can make a strong defense of it. No matter, though! In a society as “mobile” and rootless as ours, it seems that, outside of “backwoods” pieces of Americana (my hometown one, to the extent allowed by those dastardly youth, including me, who have uprooted themselves), the connection between long-term property ownership and community seems to be losing its significance. (I may exaggerate here: Certainly, in urban neighborhoods not yet gentrified (and, perchance, someday, these new “gentry” will have cohered enough to rebuild a true community *fingers crossed*), those who’ve been around for long enough, whose families have been in the neighborhood for a couple of generations, the bond still exists. Nevertheless, I think some merit lies in my argument. Yes? No?)

Compounding the problems associated with this rootlessness, “[t]he law,” remarked Steve Karina, my Urban Planning Law professor, “favors the alienation of property.” Historically, restrictive covenants have served as the tools of the evil, as well as the ignorant, to preclude the moving of Negroes (or coloreds) into certain communities. However, ideally, community-oriented homeowners can regulate how future owners alter the home, or the lot, to help to maintain and to re-enforce the neighborhood’s social fabric. The law, however, favoring alienation, future (would-be) owners, oftener than not, can, in the name of this allegedly good fluidity of property, convince the courts to invalidate problematic restrictions, the common weal be damned. (I mean not to suggest that such covenants are always to the public’s benefit, even when the owner so intends, nor that some are not intentionally pernicious; moreover, I am cognizant of the need for nuance here, the new owner having, it would seem the same right to the sanctity of his property rights, just as the previous owner possessed.)

Further exacerbating the situation, we seem, in these post-productive property, rootless and “mobile” times, to see the greatest value of our private property in monetary value, in the capital gains we accrue from purchase to re-sale. This, I contend, is not inherently bad. However, the growth of the “flipping” industry should trouble us. Not a wholly bad profession (I worked, part-time, last summer, for a neighbor who partook in bit of this: He made a legitimate investment in a once attractive, falling-apart house in a struggling town, and did some amazing things.), it, still, ought to give us pause. Yes, just as everything else has become (even love, I imagine), homes are, in a sense, commodities, but to make them objects for buy-and-sell, rather than homes with a meaningful place in the community, ought to cause any true conservative (or communitarian of any stripe) to fear. The real estate industry, of course, proffers no help: In Kunstler‘s words

Here was a neat little semantic trick introduced by realtors as they became professionalized: The prospective buyer was encouraged to think of his purchase as a home, with all the powerful associations the word dredges up from the psyche’s nether regions; the seller was encouraged to think of it as a house, just a thing made of wood where the family happened to sleep and eat, nothing to be attached to. It was most emphatically not home. Home was where one was born and raised, a place in time called the past, gone forever. You can’t go home again. (The Geography of Nowhere, page 165; Kunstler’s emphasis in italics, mine in bold-face.)

I ask, once more, then: Who gives a damn about property rights? I do, but I think that I’m tilting at windmills: Meaningful — that is, productive — property is hard to find; truly significant home property is just as rare, held at the mercy of the mortgager. (Ask those at a loss thanks to Fannie and Freddie.) And so many homes, truly owned or held in mortgage, serve as little more than simple houses, commodities to be kept for a while, ’til the occasion to move, to uproot, arises, when the present owner can make a profit off the property and allow himself and his purchaser, both, to begin the cycle anew.

Truth be told, I should prefer not to be stimulated, even if I needn’t pay $4.95 per minute.

Some-thing leaves me feeling particularly un-easy about the Democrats’ “Son of Stimulus” (Really, “Son of Stimulus”? Whether the creative title assigned by the majority party or the article’s author, this is just an un-believably stupid name.) plan to issue a re-peat of this spring’s “economic stimulus”. Perhaps, the following helps to explain my lack of confidence:

As for economists, some say it’s a good idea, if done differently from Round 1, but many are skeptical that money can start to circulate through the economy quickly enough. One reason for their concern: Surveys are finding that a major chunk of the money already doled out is going into savings instead of spending.

Saving, I believe, is a very good thing; perhaps, I err. Never-the-less, if, as seems to be the case, others agree me, and act upon such belief, rather than adhering to the words of consolation President Bush offered in the wake of 11 September 2001, to wit, “Go shopping!” (or some-thing to that effect), why ought the government, hoping to stimulate the economy, to return money to the tax-payers instead of, say, paying off a slight bit more of the im-moral debt that it has, in various incarnations over the decades, incurred?

Mis-understand me not, I implore: I rather like the idea of hard-working (and, even, lazy!) Americans keeping their in-come; how-ever, incurring the expense necessary to collect the too-high taxes and then compounding that with the expense of returning part of those same taxes seems to be the height of fiscal imprudence. Maybe, if we wish, truly, to stimulate the economy, we ought to let it follow a natural course, which, sad to say, involves low spots, rather than trying to rescue companies that, hitherto having been dubbed “too big to fail”, now, fail; we ought to re-think the role of the Federal Reserve; we ought to stop wasting so much damn money policing the world and violating the sovereignty of other nations. And then, you know, stop taxing the hell out of American workers and structuring the economy to favor the corporation with no meaning-ful relationship to the towns where it does busy, or to the land it rapes through agri-business practices. I could just be crazy, though.

On a side-note, I wonder, what is wrong with an economic structure that allows for the existence of companies that are “too big to fail” that fail, any-way?

Hurray micro-agrarianism (and the small business that it helps)!

From the South Bend Tribune, back home in my beloved northern Indiana:

TERRE HAUTE (AP) — A growing number of Indiana residents are dusting off their spades — and their green thumbs — to fight high food prices by planting vegetable gardens.

Paitson Bros. Ace Hardware in Terre Haute has seen such an increased interest in gardening among its customers that the store ordered at least 50 percent more starter plants than usual, said Susan Goodman, the store’s garden center manager.

Had I my druthers, ultimately, I should return to Indiana, buy Ray’s Super Foods (and forthwith re-re-name it Two Joes), quickly build up a chain (which, of course, would remain in my hands, rather than going public; I should, very strongly, consider, though, selling part of ownership to my employees.) of ten full-service, community-oriented grocery stores located in down-town areas throughout Northwest Indiana, and supply my stores, as much as possible, with produce and meat grown organically and naturally on my family’s farm and by area farmers whom I contract to grow equally healthy, earth-friendly food. It’s good to dream.

Well, duh!

Pleas for top-down aid to the world’s hungry, about which I have mixed feelings (Yes, I should like to witness the eradication of poverty and hungry; no, I don’t have any particularly affinity for World Bank, not to mention G8.), notwithstanding, Zoellick’s call for “reform of biofuel policies in rich countries, urging them to grow more food to feed the hungry” warms the cockles of my heart.

Speaking on the sidelines of the summit on Hokkaido island, Mr Zoellick said biofuels – transport fuels made from crops – have made a contribution to food price rises. [. . .]

”The US and Europe also need to take action to reduce mandates, subsidies and tariffs benefiting grain and oil seed biofuels that take food off the table for millions,” he said.

That only now has some-one made a fuss of this at such might heights baffles me. Long ago, I, coming from a (formerly) farming family, working in a grocery store at the time, and having many friends who farm, recognized that dedicating our monoculture production more to filling our tanks than our tummies would prove to be disastrous. My friend Eric, a farmer whose family has long benefitted from government intervention in the agri”culture” market, willing concedes that this is bad policy; self-interested, as we all are, he welcomes the increased prices, but he knows that this is bad news. I do, too, and I’m more than happy that my father and grandfather increased their annual rents by some thirty dollars per acre thanks to the ethanol craze. As nice as that is, though, we cannot, as Zoellick acknowledges, continue this asinine policy (or, truth be told, as Wendell Berry has, many times, reminded us, our entire system of monoculture agri-business. This is no place for such digression, though). Perhaps, this time, some-one in power will listen. Beginning to resemble a broken record of some-one as depressing as, say, Joy Division, I again remark that I remain bitterly pessimistic.

Gonna read ’til my eyes bleed

Or so I hope. Presently, I find myself, quite happily, at home in Indiana, where, at the moment, we enjoy absolutely beautiful weather. Sooner, rather than later, I intend to make use of down-time here to read. Travels to Chicago and to Texas and attempts to visit with as many people here as possible over the next three weeks will keep me busy, as will my trip to Yale and Boston (18 – 22 June), but, otherwise, I’ve few plans for the summer (although at some point I must find an internship). This being the case, I hope to update this web-log more frequently and, having become quite cognizant of my consistently being remiss in my post-undergraduate duties as a Program of Liberal Studies major, to wit, to read frequently, I hope to make my way through as many pages as possible. Forty-some books awaiting their turn rest on my bookshelf back in Maryland; the list in my head carries on well beyond. For now, a very incomplete list of intended reads, those that accompanied me to Indiana.

Orestes Brownson, The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny (I’ve finished about sixty-five per cent of this one.)

Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers

Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market

Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

Eric Freyfogle, The Land We Share: Private Property and the Common Good

The longer list includes Hawthorne, Faulker, O’Connor, E.F. Schumacher, Victor Davis Hanson, Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, Bolingbroke, Chesterton, McCullough (1776 and John Adams), perhaps Tolstoy, and others, many of whom, seven hundred-plus miles from Hyattsville, I fail to recall at present.

Where’s the beef?

Not, I hope, on my plate if it arrived at the Greenbelt Co-op from the Chino, CA-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.. As James of PoMoCo notes on The American Scene, this is, truly, a crunchy con issue.

Call me a stuck-in-another-time, antiquated agrarian if you will, but something is entirely unsettling about the amount of beef that this one company manufactures. (Yes, “manufactures”: There’s nothing agricultural, no “raising” beef, about this company.) So long as we continue to demand such quantities of meat (Not that anyone, by any means, ought to infer that I suggest adapting — or even really condone! — vegetarianism!) for unrealistic prices, we will be left to settle for less palatably enjoyable dishes, produced from non-organically fed, cage-contained animals treated harshly by a system that rapes the earth as it violates the rights of these animals (A contentious subject whereupon I will not further touch) and separates man from the land, and, consequently, man from himself and his God.

More here.