Sunday, January 21, 2007
Good argument on relative importance of global heating vs. "energy
(Esp. since energy "independence" is a fantasy anyway.)
Energy Independence http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/20/AR2007012001152_pf.html
The wrong target for policymakers
Sunday, January 21, 2007; B06
BOTH CONGRESS and the Bush administration seem certain to return to energy policy this year. The subject is likely to be featured in President Bush's State of the Union address; a variety of energy bills have been proposed in Congress; and this year's reauthorization of the farm program may repackage agricultural handouts as ethanol-promoting energy policy. But there is a danger in the way political leaders are framing this issue. "Energy independence" is more elusive and less rewarding than is commonly perceived. It should not be allowed to take precedence over attempts to curb global warming.
The United States imports 60 percent of the petroleum it consumes, about double the share two decades ago. Those imports come mostly from countries whose governments are unstable, unsavory or overtly hostile to the United States: 60 percent of the world's oil reserves are in the Middle East, 10 percent in Africa, 6 percent in Venezuela and 5 percent in Russia. It sounds reasonable to argue that if the United States relied less on these regions for its fuel, it would be better off.
But consider this thought experiment: If the United States replaced all oil imports with domestically produced fuel, how much more secure would it be? Well, a Venezuelan or Iranian oil embargo could still hurt U.S. motorists and oil-consuming industries. An embargo would create a global scarcity of oil, and fuel prices would jump -- including the price of fuel in the United States. Admittedly, Americans would be paying those high prices to producers in their own country rather than to producers abroad, but the importance of this distinction is debatable. Some producers in the United States are foreign-owned, and many production operations abroad are U.S.-owned.
Some military planners say that, even so, energy independence would boost national security. The nation must be able to count on access to sufficient fuel to power its military machine and key industries. But two-fifths of the oil consumed in the United States is domestically produced, and the nation maintains a strategic petroleum reserve. Besides, it would take a truly formidable enemy to prevent the United States from buying oil simultaneously from the Middle East, West Africa and Latin America. True energy security comes not so much from energy independence as from diverse sources of supply.
Another security argument for energy independence is that by importing oil from radical Islamic regimes the United States is financing both sides in the struggle against terrorism. But it doesn't matter to Islamic radicals who buys their oil; the United States has banned Iranian oil imports since 1979, but Iran's crude still fetches the world price in the international market. It's true that, in pursuing energy independence, the United States would either restrict its consumption or boost its output; this would slightly alter the global balance of supply and demand, perhaps reducing the oil price and diminishing Iran's revenue. But even this effect is not certain: Saudi Arabia might respond by pumping less so that prices remained stable.
This is not to say that curing the American addiction to oil would bring no security benefits whatever. Over the long term it would probably exert a moderating influence on oil prices; this would reduce the influence of authoritarian petro-states such as Russia or Venezuela. But this distant and uncertain benefit should not be the prime driver of energy policy. Mr. Bush and Congress should focus their energy policy on mitigating climate change and accept security gains that may flow from that as a welcome byproduct.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
When is "Tinkerbell" the enemy of good sense and community
(I'm thinking about building eventually, and it will be a house where I
can grow old ...)
*_.and Tinkerbell Transit_*
*posted by Josh Goodman*
Only once every three or four blue moons do we receive an interesting
press release through our fax machine here on the 13th Floor, but this
_one_ <http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news/2007/010.htm> from Fairfax
County, Virginia certainly qualifies. It introduced a new term to me:
Peter Pan housing.
Peter Pan housing refers to homes built in a way that seems to assume
their occupants will never grow old -- designs that prove troublesome
because their owners rarely seem to be blessed with perpetual youth.
Problematic features the county has identified include "entry stairs,
narrow doorways or lack of a first-floor bathroom."
In response to these concerns, Fairfax is reviewing building codes and
trying to increase financing options for retrofitting homes.
Retrofitting is expensive, but one Fairfax official pointed out that
having an elevator installed is cheaper than a year in assisted living.
Obviously, the aging of the Baby Boom generation makes this a big issue,
but so does the substantial _decrease_
<http://www.inthenews.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/display.cgi?id=10130> in the
percentage of American houses with only one story over the past few
decades. As a result, a lot of places probably need to go after Peter
Pan housing with Hook-like zeal.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Great article on the energy conundrum
Read the whole thing--long excerpts below the link
*Joy Ride to Global Collapse*
Reflections on Kunstler's/ Home from Nowhere/
No one is talking to us about giving up cars today - even though there
is hard scientific evidence that the freewheeling automotive world we
know today will have totally vanished within the lifetime of most of us
now living. A few idealists are talking about maybe getting us to
constrain our use a little bit. None of them are running for any
position of political influence in this country. They would be lucky to
get their family's vote. We don't want to hear it.
Auto mania is not confined to Americans. The love affair is
international and now grows fastest in the nations of the Second and
Third World. Humanity burns 70 million barrels of oil a day. At the
present rate of increase, it is projected we'll be burning 100 million
in 20 years. But we'll never get there. We are close to that peak of
global production which was foreseen almost half a century ago by Dr. M.
King Hubbert, the foremost petroleum geologist of his day. (See link at
the end of this column.) The descent from that peak only takes a few
decades. We know that petroleum is a finite resource. But even as
gasoline prices begin to creep upward some time in the not-too-distant
future we won't curtail our driving until real supply shortages
absolutely force the issue.
Take a look at an ugly future scenario:
*The sudden, agonizing death of the private automobile is a wall that
global society will hit full speed, pedal to the metal when a global
petroleum crisis finally catches up with us. We will not accept any
solutions that will soften the impact until the real shortage hits us at
some time (early) in the next century. If we continue to fail to take
any reasonable steps to prepare for it, and it comes upon us thus, the
constriction of the petroleum base of our global economy is quite likely
to begin a plunging, bucking, gasping downward spiral towards a deep and
lasting depression-with-inflation that could virtually end modern times
as we now know them.*
I will explain the combination of hard science and human hard-headedness
which backs the liklihood of this future. But first, let's examine where
Even if we believe that we are joyriding toward the abyss, few of us
will volunteer to be first to quit driving. I've tried it twice. Once in
Tallahassee as Florida's "Energy Czar," and once as a freelance
investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. What a royal pain it was to
be carless in Florida's sprawled-out, little, old capital city. What a
joy it was not to have to fool with parking in our nation's capital.
Cabs there were plentiful and cheap. Walking was a pleasure. The
excellent subway and bus lines were just a hop from my little flat three
blocks from the Library of Congress. But that urban experience is the
exception. For most Americans life without a car is unthinkable - even
in Washington, D.C. It is too late to talk about rational restraint.
As James Howard Kunstler's new book/ Home from Nowhere/ makes clear, the
entire complex of the American civilization and infrastructure that we
have built since World War II is almost unworkable without our massive
herd of private autos. We can't get along without them, although
Kunstler would clearly like to tame them. Kunstler's first best seller,/
The Geography of Nowhere/, was described by a Wall Street Journal
reviewer as "a sharp polemic." The language of/ Home from Nowhere/ is
just as crisp and creative as he continues his positive indictment of
America's post-World-War-II built environment.
I say "positive," because in/ Home from Nowhere/ Kunstler tries to focus
on curing the blight - what we are already beginning to do in a few
places, and what more we can and must do.* "we have the knowledge to do
the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing"* I,
however, turned immediately to the chapter entitled "Car Crazy." The
book's dust jacket says it "offers real hope to a nation yearning to
live in authentic places worth caring about." Not only does the car
chapter not deliver hope, Kunstler's auto jeremiad is almost as bleak as
my post-petroleum scenario. After a splendidly concise and eloquent
damning of what American car craziness is doing to our built
environment, he concludes his chapter, "We have the knowledge to do the
right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing. The
inescapable conclusion is that our behavior is wicked, and that we are
liable to pay a heavy price for our wickedness by losing the things we
love, including our beautiful country and our democratic republic."
What makes the decline of the Petroleum Age so relentlessly damaging is
that there is no fuel that is going to substitute for it. I know the
technological optimists, with a lot of cynical hype from the
auto/petroleum industrial axis and a lot of naive wishing by the Greens,
vaguely promise a clean, beautiful, driving world on "a mixed fuel
economy." It is this promise that keeps us tranquilly driving along
burning it up for "a few more years" without feeling at all wicked. Some
cabal of scientists in white coats is going unmask the Second Law of
Thermodynamics as an oldthink fraud.* NONE of the promised alternatives
will replace petroleum* It ain't gonna happen. None (let me get way out
on the limb and repeat that: NONE) of the promised alternatives will
replace petroleum - not even vast stores of natural gas, which is the
closest potential substitute, but is also finite.
Nor will liquified and "scrubbed-up" coal juice. Nor (again disregarding
for the moment the environmental and safety questions) will the scores
of new nuclear plants needed to charge up electric cars be economically
supportable in a Post-Petroleum Age. Why? That was explained to us by an
almost forgotten scientist at the University of Florida over 20 years
ago. It is the concept of "net energy." If it takes one barrel of oil to
produce every ten barrels of oil, you have nine barrels of oil left to
run the rest of society. As oil becomes more difficult to find and
transport, the net yield decreases. There is less to run society. Oil
All other costs that are touched by oil (everything) also rise.
Eventually, you creep into recession-with-inflation, which economists
said wasn't supposed to happen - until it did happen after the 1973 oil
embargo. This is where economists display their ignorance of physics.
Many economists, people who should know better, say at that point people
go out and explore for more oil. (We're still finding new oil, but not
at the rate we're burning it. And there are a steadily diminishing
number of places on the planet where we haven't poked holes.) Or,
economists chirp, we'll find other energy sources and drive prices back
down. That is what happens for every other commodity, they say, and
energy is no different from any other commodity.
Energy is not just another commodity in our modern economic system.
Energy is the underlying power that carries the burden and makes our
modern economic infrastructure "more productive" (less labor intensive).
Petroleum is the dominant energy source for the transportation network
that undergirds the global economy, and the planet's most plentiful,
most versatile, most transportable and most efficient energy source. In
a very real and measurable sense the price of every other energy source
we have floats on a "subsidy" of cheap petroleum. In other words every
other energy form we use, including all of the "solar" energies are as
cheap and usable as they are because they are "underwritten" by cheap
oil. (Cheap petroleum and natural gas produce and transport those
silicon PV cells. When the oil is gone, the price of "solar" will
skyrocket, along with every other "alternative energy source," in direct
proportion to the petroleum used in every step of its production and
delivery.)* we would quickly turn our planet into a desert trying to run
our current automobile fleet on biomass*
"Gasohol" is another ideal example of an "alternative fuel" that floats
on a cheap petroleum subsidy. It takes cheap oil for each step of
planting, tending, fertilizing, spraying, harvesting, transporting and
processing corn into alcohol. It takes more cheap oil to blend that
alcohol into something that will (still imperfectly, compared to
gasoline) power your car. Gasohol from corn, sugar, peat, beets,
sawdust, tropical rain forest, or any other "biomass" is not going to
run our present global auto world, let alone the expanding auto world
glowingly predicted by the car industry for the future. Ignore, for a
second the fact that such massive use would quickly begin cannibalizing
the biomass that supports all life and supplies such basics as food and
"Biomass" is not a long-term massive source of global energy because
many of our current agricultural and forestry practices "mine the soil,"
and are, in the long run, neither "renewable," nor "sustainable." Ignore
the environmental concerns about CO2, ozone, etc. Ignore the shrinking
global biomass and arable land that will be needed in ever greater
amounts to feed, clothe and house a swelling human population. There
isn't enough biomass on earth to run our petroleum economy at its
present level if we are insane enough to try it. (And we are.) We would
quickly turn the planet into a desert trying to run our current
automobile fleet on biomass.
And so the real "Catch 22" for alternative fuels is that when the
petroleum economy begins to stumble over shortage, all of the
"alternative fuels" that are supposed to be waiting in the wings, are
going to rise in price dramatically. It is going to be an ugly,
cost-pushed, escalating thing that is going to cripple the global
economy and impoverish global society.* Congress can't print oil and
they can't repeal the second law of thermodynamics* Cleaned-up coal and
natural gas and perhaps even some nuclear will provide our electricity
for a period of time. And some niche-market transportation, too. Wind
power can be a real electric winner for many places on the planet (not
much wind here in Florida and cloud cover makes solar PV a marginally
expensive source on much of the planet).
But none of these sources, along with their electric cars, will run our
present automotive economy at the level of wealth and consumption we
enjoy in this glorious sunset of our Petroleum Age. Trans-continental
economies that are most strung-out on automobiles and trucks (the United
States, Canada, Australia, etc.) are likely to be hardest hit first. So
just when we need to make the transition to other fuels we will discover
that everything we do is much more expensive and we seem to have less
than we anticipated. It will puzzle economists. The economy will slow
down but the prices of everything will keep on rising. We will then
rediscover the age-old truth: money is not a real thing; it is only an
accounting device. Congress can't print oil and they can't repeal the
Second Law of Thermodynamics.
So after we have ritually fired the then-current crop of politicians and
the new ones haven't changed anything, we won't know who to blame. What
will be going on? Now pay attention economists. Here are three dicta
that may sound heretical.
First is Minter's Little Observation:* Neither capital nor labor can
Growing out of this observation is Minter's Little Law of Energy
Subsidy:* The shortage of a more efficient energy source in an economy
will always make the remaining sources of less efficient energy more
expensive and even less efficient.*
Will humanity belatedly begin to use all energy more efficiently when we
finally hear those sucking sounds in the petroleum barrel? Of course. We
will have to. But such efficiencies will not make us more prosperous (as
they do today). By that time they will only slow the rate at which we
get poorer. Why?
Heed Minter's Little Maxim:* A society's transition from a more
efficient energy source to a less efficient energy source will always
and invariably decrease the wealth, flexibility and options available to
that society.* In other words, just when we most need the wealth and
flexibility of cheap petroleum energy to make the transition to a less
energy-intensive infrastructure, everything is going to cost much, much
more. We will be poorer.
If this is all true, what should we be doing?
I do not have many answers. We should at least take off the rose colored
alternative fuel glasses that are blinding the Greens and providing a
smoke screen for short-sighted governments and industries. Until we do
that we can't accurately begin envisioning what a post-petroleum society
is really going to look like. Possibly we should stop sinking so much
money into long-term expansions of infrastructure to support
automobiles. Maybe a few advanced thinkers will begin considering
post-petroleum cities with electric-only cars, or without
private-passenger cars altogether. You tell me.
One thing that seems obvious is that we need to begin an honest net
energy analysis of all of the proposed alternative fuels, and just what
their/ true net/ is/ after all of the present petroleum subsidies are
worked out of the formula./ That is not going to be as easy as it
sounds. Petroleum subsidizes everything we make and do. But it is vital
if we are to make rational judgements not based upon the partisan
polemics of vested interests or true believers. Just what we will do
with this knowledge once we get it is another matter. The Western World
is run by corporate leaders who think quarter-to-quarter, politicians
who think election-to-election, and a public that is hostile to bad news
about their lifestyle (especially our beloved cars). The Pacific Rim
countries are enslaved to automobile exports (and petroleum poor).
The oil exporters are already exaggerating their reserves to get loans
and the global financial community is making those loans. Is there
anyone out there who isn't heavily vested in a continuation of the
existing myopia?* we probably don't have as much time as we think*
In an earlier column, I said that since we obviously are going to do
nothing about transportation until it is way too late, America's only
energy policy option is to work for efficiency in our buildings and
built environment. Certainly that is the focus of Kunstler's two books.
That is the focus of what we have been calling "Sustainable Design."
What is crucial for the design professions to realize is that we
probably don't have as much time as we think before we will not be as
rich as we once were.
To me that spells building for quality and endurance. It means an end to
"consumable" buildings. It means building for ourselves and posterity.
It means the old-fashioned conservative virtues of thrift and
investment, not burn-up and squander. To be Biblical, it means using the
remaining fat years to prepare for the coming lean years. Without
considering the decline of petroleum, Kunstler already thinks we are
wicked to be trashing our lives, our cities, and our infrastructure in
our mad romance with the automobile. Would he think us diabolic if he
understood we are really racing towards a post-petroleum economy that
stands to impoverish our posterity?
If so, he would probably be right. Morally what we are doing is very
much akin to burning the children's lifeboats on the Titanic to keep the
partying adults warm for another half an hour.
In the very humane, final chapter of Kunstler's book, he reflects on the
fine life that the success of his previous book,/ The Geography of
Nowhere/, has given him in a small town in New York. It's an idyllic
world of writing and painting in an almost car-free cocoon. He should
enjoy it with a clear conscience. He, at least, has jousted with the
beast and urged reform.
But we are unreformable, and it seems certain that any such modest
reforms as humanity would swallow will only delay the inevitable by a
few years. And so, as I understand it, a global economic crunch of epic
proportions, one that stands to debase much of our current wealth and
render much of our current infrastructure valueless, lies just over the
horizon sometime in the next century. The economic tremor of the early
'70s was but a mild hint of the times to come. Once again humanity is
going to demonstrate Voltaire's little maxim: "History teaches us that
history teaches us nothing."/ Jim Minter, Editor/
Monday, January 08, 2007
Oakland press joins the ethanomania bandwagon
Smart meters indeed
Taking Control of Electric Bill, Hour by Hour
By DAVID CAY JOHNSTON
Ten times last year, Judi Kinch, a geologist, got e-mail messages telling her that the next afternoon any electricity used at her Chicago apartment would be particularly expensive because hot, steamy weather was increasing demand for power.
Each time, she and her husband would turn down the air-conditioners — sometimes shutting one of them off — and let the dinner dishes sit in the washer until prices fell back late at night.
Most people are not aware that electricity prices fluctuate widely throughout the day, let alone exactly how much they pay at the moment they flip a switch. But Ms. Kinch and her husband are among the 1,100 Chicago residents who belong to the Community Energy Cooperative, a pilot project to encourage energy conservation, and this puts them among the rare few who are able to save money by shifting their use of power.
Just as cellphone customers delay personal calls until they become free at night and on weekends, and just as millions of people fly at less popular times because air fares are lower, people who know the price of electricity at any given moment can cut back when prices are high and use more when prices are low. Participants in the Community Energy Cooperative program, for example, can check a Web site that tells them, hour by hour, how much their electricity costs; they get e-mail alerts when the price is set to rise above 20 cents a kilowatt-hour.
If just a fraction of all Americans had this information and could adjust their power use accordingly, the savings would be huge. Consumers would save nearly $23 billion a year if they shifted just 7 percent of their usage during peak periods to less costly times, research at Carnegie Mellon University indicates. That is the equivalent of the entire nation getting a free month of power every year.
Meters that can read prices every hour or less are widely used in factories, but are found in only a tiny number of homes, where most meters are read monthly.
The handful of people who do use hourly meters not only cut their own bills, but also help everyone else by reducing the need for expensive generating stations that run just a few days, or hours, each year. Over the long run, such savings could mean less pollution, because the dirtiest plants could be used less or not at all.
The vast majority of utility customers know only the average price of the electricity they used in any given month. But wholesale prices for electricity are set a day in advance, usually on an hour-by-hour or quarter-hour basis. Power companies and utilities are keenly aware of the pricing roller coaster, but they typically blend the numbers into a single monthly bill for their customers.
For most Chicagoans, the average summer price last year was 8.25 cents a kilowatt-hour. Although Ms. Kinch and her husband at times paid as much as 36.5 cents a kilowatt-hour — the peak price on the humid afternoon of Aug. 2 — they paid less than their neighbors over all. On 38 days, some of their power cost less than a penny a kilowatt-hour.
Other consumers who know the hourly price of their electricity have actually been able to get paid by utilities for power they did not use. In New York City last July, for instance, when there was a blackout in Queens, residents of one building on Central Park West voluntarily cut their demand as much as 42 percent and sold the capacity back into the electricity market so that it could be used where it was more needed.
Certainly, such situations are a big exception. The fact that most people have no idea how much their power costs has emerged as a sticking point in the ongoing effort to restructure the nation’s electricity business, which the federal government is moving from a system in which legal monopolies charge rates set by state regulators, toward a competitive system where the market sets the price.
But how does efficient pricing emerge in a business where access to information is so lopsided? A market, as defined by the courts, is a place where willing buyers and sellers who both have reasonable knowledge agree on a price; in the electricity markets, the advantage lies distinctly with those who make and distribute power.
Under either the traditional system of utility regulation, with prices set by government, or in the competitive business now in half the states, companies that generate and distribute power have little or no incentive to supply customers with hourly meters, which can cut into their profits.
Meters that encourage people to reduce demand at peak hours will translate to less need for power plants — particularly ones that are only called into service during streaks of hot or cold weather.
In states where rates are still regulated, utilities earn a virtually guaranteed profit on their generating stations. Even if a power plant runs only one hour a year, the utility earns a healthy return on its cost.
In a competitive market, it is the spikes in demand that cause prices to soar for brief periods. Flattening out the peaks would be disastrous for some power plant owners, which could go bankrupt if the profit they get from peak prices were to ebb significantly.
But as awareness of “smart meters” grows, so does demand for them, not only from consumers and environmental groups but also from government bodies responding to public anger over rising power prices. In Illinois, for example, the legislature passed a law in December requiring the program Ms. Kinch joined four years ago to be expanded from 1,100 customers to 110,000.
The law also required that Commonwealth Edison, the Chicago utility, hire a third party to run the program. It chose Comverge Inc., the largest provider of peak-load energy management systems in North America.
The smart metering programs are not new, but their continued rarity speaks in part to the success of power-generating companies in protecting their profit models. Some utilities did install meters in a small number of homes as early as three decades ago, pushed by the environmental movement and a spike in energy prices.
Today, the same set of circumstances seems to be prompting a revival of interest, and even the utility companies seem resigned to the eventuality of such programs. Anne R. Pramaggiore, the senior vice president for regulatory affairs at Commonwealth Edison of Chicago, said that in the past, interest in hourly meter was transitory.
“We really haven’t dealt with these issues for 30 years,” she said.
But a sustained effort to install more meters is likely now because of what Ms. Pramaggiore called a “fundamental change” in the energy markets. Rising fuel costs and environmental concerns are — once again — front and center.
When consumers know the price of their electricity in advance and can tailor their use, even minor changes in behavior can lead to lower home utility bills and less reliance on marginal power plants, said Kathleen Spees, a graduate student in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon.
“Small reductions in demand can produce very large savings,” said Ms. Spees, who analyzed prices charged within the PJM Interconnection grid, which coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity for 51 million people from New Jersey to Illinois.
Consumers who cut back on power use at peak times can do more than just avoid high prices. They can make money, as people in the building on Central Park West learned last summer.
Peter Funk Jr., an energy partner at the law firm Duane Morris who lives in the 48-unit co-op, persuaded his neighbors three years ago to install a single meter to the Consolidated Edison system and then to operate their own internal metering system. That made the building big enough to qualify for hour-by-hour pricing.
When the next day’s prices are scheduled to soar, the building superintendent and a few residents get e-mail messages or phone calls. “We have an orderly plan all worked out to notify people” so they can reduce their power use during the designated times, Mr. Funk said.
The residents save more than just the money on power not used during peak periods, when pricing has been as high as almost 50 cents a kilowatt-hour. During the blackout in July, when parts of Queens were without electricity for up to nine days, the building cut demand as much as 42 percent and sold the unused capacity for about $3,000.
That money helps the building offer a valuable benefit: On most weekend mornings, electricity for residents is free.
Monday, January 01, 2007
Too many people
America the Overfull
AMERICAN crowing is harmless enough, but the announcement this year that the United States population had reached 300 million, had (to my ear) the unmistakable growl of a boast. It was as though the colossal agglomeration of people amounted to another great score in our love affair with bigness.
The news gave me no pleasure. I just felt sad, while at the same time hating my wistful mood. Fogeydom is the last bastion of the bore and reminiscence is its anthem. As William Burroughs noted, in the 1950s, What I want for dinner is a bass fished in Lake Huron in 1920.
It is futile to want the old days back, but that doesn’t mean one should ignore the lessons of the visitable past — say, when there were half that number of people in the country. In some important ways life really was better then because of it. The overcrowded, much noisier, more hectic, intensely urbanized and vertical world of the present can seem hostile and hallucinatory to anyone who knew America in a simpler form.
In my lifetime the population has doubled. I’m glad I grew up when the number of Americans was so much smaller. How does one explain to anyone under 50, or to the grateful unfazed immigrant from an overpopulated nation, that this was once a country of enormous silence and ordinariness — empty spaces not just in the Midwest and the rural South but in the outer suburbs of New England, like the one I grew up in, citified on one margin and thinning to woods on the other. That roomier and simpler America shaped me by giving me and others of my generation a love for space and a taste for solitude.
Talking fondly, and sadly, of the past, it is impossible to avoid the elegiac tone of Edmund Gosse in “Father and Son.” In this, one of my favorite books, Gosse recalls the richness and beauty of the English shores of his youth, and the rock pools he had delved into with his father, who was a naturalist (and a crank). Gosse writes of “the soft and radiant forms, sea anemones, seaweeds, shells, fishes, which had inhabited them, undisturbed since the creation of the world,” and then speaks of their violation by collectors: “There is nothing, now, where in our days there was so much.” Fifty years before, “on the coast of Devonshire and Cornwall, where the limestone at the water’s edge is wrought into crevices and hollows, the tide line was, like Keats’s Grecian vase, ‘a still unravished bride of quietness.’ ”
Even in its heyday, Medford, Mass., was never compared to a Grecian urn. But it is impossible for me not to feel a sense of grief when I reflect on how my part of Webster Street — the house footprint, indeed the whole block where I was born — is now buried under Interstate 93. Before that road was put through and Medford Square was still important, the Mystic River linked us to the world, and High Street rejoiced in the same sinuous contours it had in April 1775, when Paul Revere rode down it at midnight, warning of the British attack.
I grew up in a country of sudden and consoling lulls, which gave life a kind of pattern and punctuation, unknown now. It was typified by the somnolence of Sundays, when no stores were open. There were empty parts of the day, of the week, of the year; times when there were no people on the sidewalks, no traffic in the streets, no audible human voices, now and then no sound at all. In this hushed world, a bumblebee was a physical presence, the sound of a cicada could dominate an August afternoon.
Nowhere was solitude more available than on a long drive, especially at night; and it seems to me that my generation was defined by the open road, and the accompanying hope that a promise lay at the end of it. The almost trance-like experience of driving down the soft tunnel of a dark highway at night was something I relished. At most, there would be the distant red lights of a car far ahead, and always the murmur of the glowing radio, the hiss of the tires and, at a certain speed on narrower roads, the fizzing past of telephone poles with their rhythmic whiplash.
Late at night, in most places I knew, there was almost no traffic and driving, a meditative activity, could cast a spell. Behind the wheel, gliding along, I was keenly aware of being an American in America, on a road that was also metaphorical, making my way through life, unhindered, developing ideas, making decisions, liberated by the flight through this darkness and silence. With less light pollution, the night sky was different, too — starrier, more daunting, more beautiful.
I have not seen roads or night skies like that for many years. As Gosse said about the ring of living beauty of the English shore, “All this is long over and done with.”
A longing for a simpler world, for a glimpse of the past, is one of the motives in travel. But the rest of the world has fared no better in terms of population pressure, and in many places it is much worse, even catastrophic. The population of Malawi 40 years ago was small and sustainable. None of us Peace Corps volunteers there at that time thought in terms of rescuing the country but only of helping to improve it. Now Malawi can’t feed itself; it’s one of the many countries that people wish to flee, renowned for being hopeless, unjustly publicized as an enormous orphanage of desperate tots, needing to be saved, devoid of pride, lost without us. The notion that a pop singer (back then it would have been Elvis) would breeze through and scoop up a child in a condescending gesture of rescue was unthinkable then.
In India a few months ago, as I was leaving my hotel in Chennai, I noticed a hotel employee shadowing me. He warned me that the sidewalks were so packed with people I would be swallowed up and stifled. He was right. And I was unable to cross the main street in Bangalore, a leafy city of under a million people in 1973 and now a hectically improvised sprawl of seven million. Mumbai’s population of nearly 20 million rivals that of São Paulo, Brazil, and Lagos, Nigeria — nightmare cities.
Travel, except in almost inaccessible places, is no longer the answer to finding solitude. And this contraction of space on a shrinking planet suggests a time, not far off, when there will be no remoteness: nowhere to become lost, nothing to be discovered, no escape, no palpable concept of distance, no peculiarity of dress — frightening thoughts for a traveler.
Yet some of the most populous countries manage to be habitable because they are societies with strict, and civilized, codes of conduct. India, China and Japan are convenient examples, but I would include many African and Middle Eastern countries, too. The vindictive stereotype of the Muslim as a xenophobe does not tally with my experience of wandering in the Muslim world, where I have been treated hospitably, welcomed by strangers as “dayf al Rahman,” a guest of the Merciful One.
We are passing through a confused period of aggression and fear, characterized by our confrontational government, the decline of diplomacy, a pugnacious foreign policy and a settled belief that the surest way to get people to tell the truth is to torture them. (And by the way, “water boarding” was a torture technique at the worst of the Khmer Rouge prisons.) It is no wonder we have begun to squint at strangers. This is a corrosive situation in a country where more and more people, most of them strangers, are a feature of daily life. Americans as a people I believe to be easygoing, compassionate, not looking for a fight. But surely I am not the only one who has noticed that we are ruder, more offhand, readier to take offense, a nation of shouters and blamers.
Yes, it is just silly and fogeyish to yearn for that simpler and smaller world of the past. But one could ask for the past’s better manners, the instinctive decorum that has served to mitigate conflict. One of the lessons of travel is that, though half the world is wearing T-shirts and sneakers, they manage to live in overpopulated cities because they have not abandoned their traditional modes of politeness. These grace notes, which make traveling in crowded countries bearable, are a lesson to us in a mobbed and jostling world.
Should be the only ones allowed
* Home Builders Association promoting energy efficient homes
Bay City Times
By Jeff Kart
The Bay County Home Builders Association has formed a Green Built
Michigan chapter to help train members and other licensed builders on
ways to build more energy efficient and environmentally friendly homes
in the area.