Posts Tagged ‘James Howard Kunstler’

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Adirondacks and the Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler will speak about The Long Emergency at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Paul Smith’s College. The event, in the auditorium of Freer Hall, is free and open to the public.

Kunstler’s 2005 book, subtitled “Surviving the converging catastrophes of the 21st Century,” has received international attention, but the Saratoga Springs resident has long had an Adirondack following. In 1987 he wrote one of the funniest things ever to appear in Adirondack Life: “The Man Who Would Be King,” a profile of Roger Jakubowski, in which he let the megalomaniacal then-owner of Great Camp Topridge bury himself under pronouncements about his plan to amass an Adirondack empire. (That empire has been whittled to a dormant water-bottling plant in Port Kent.)

The author’s humor is intact even though his subject now is sobering: the implosion of oil-based economies and a transformation of day-to-day life. Kunstler tells the Almanack that the Adirondacks will probably lose population under the new world order.

MT: Have you given any thought, in light of the system failures you foresee, to how well people in the Adirondacks will fare?

JHK: Well it seems to me the Adirondacks have always basically been a resource economy, with a recent overlay of mass tourism; before the Second World War it was mostly elite tourism. And that’s what your economy has been. It’s a pretty poor resource area for what it is. And my guess is that the Adirondack region will contract in population a lot.

MT: What do you think will cause that? The collapse of the tourism economy, the lack of a resource economy?

JHK: Not just tourism but motor-based tourism in particular. It’s conceivable that the Adirondacks would remain a retreat for wealthy people, if we continue to have wealthy people. If you don’t get trains running back into the region you’re gonna be in a lot of trouble.

MT: I’ve read a lot of your writing, and I know that you feel that people in the big cities won’t be able to turn to the land, just won’t have the resources that people in the country will have . . .

JHK: Well, I’m often misunderstood about that. I don’t see it quite that simply because there are many forces swirling around in that picture, some of them counterintuitive. For instance, people assume that when I say the big cities will be troubled places, that everyone would move to the country in one form or another, and let’s remember there are several very different kinds of rural landscapes. At the same time people assume when I say the suburbs will fail that I mean everybody will simply leave and move elsewhere. This is not what I mean at all. There will surely be big demographic shifts, but they will occur in ways we may not expect.

For instance, I see the probability that our small towns and smaller cities will be re-inhabited and reactivated because they are more appropriately scaled to the energy realities of the future. In the meantime our rural landscapes are likely to be inhabited quite differently than they are today. For one thing, in the places that can produce food, farming will almost certainly require more human attention. These are the broad outlines that I see. But we don’t know exactly how this might play out.

MT: I live in Saranac Lake, and I see this as a great small town but one with maybe a 90-day growing season and a seven-month heating season. How does that fit into your picture?

JHK: I think places like Saranac Lake will contract while they re-densify at their centers. One thing you’ve got going in all these places like Saranac or Lake Placid, despite the Adirondack Park Agency, is a suburban overlay that just isn’t going to work after a certain point. Despite the APA rules, the basic template of highway development and strip development that became normal all over the rest of the United States was not so different in the Adirondacks, [in terms of] where most of the new business after 1960 located. At the same time, the postwar car culture allowed people to spread their houses out in the landscape in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before the car and won’t be possible after the car.

To clarify, what you’re seeing really is almost nothing could defeat these habits and practices of suburbanization even in a place as rigorously controlled as the Adirondacks. All that stuff on the highway between Placid and Saranac, all the people living 14 miles out of town making a living running front-end loaders or whatever they do, they’re gonna run into trouble with these living arrangements. That’s apart from the issue of how the economy functions.

The guy running the front-end loader living in Rainbow Lake, he’s basically living a suburban life although he thinks he’s living in the country. The issue of how does he make a living now now that he isn’t doing site preparation for other people building houses in Rainbow Lake and places like it — an awful lot of the economy in the Adirondacks, just like the economy in the rest of the U.S. for the last 30 years, has been based on building more suburban sprawl. Up in the Adirondacks you guys have sort of put a sort of lifestyle dressing over it. But it’s still suburban, and it functions very differently from the pre–World-War II towns.

Now even if the population goes down in the Adirondacks it certainly doesn’t mean your towns will die; in fact they may be more lively as they re-densify. All the spread-out stuff is going to lose value and incrementally be abandoned, in my opinion.

MT: I’m actually encouraged because I was wondering whether you think the towns themselves were just too isolated?

JHK: Well they are isolated and that’s a big problem, and that’s why I say if you don’t get railroad service back there you’re going to have enormous problem. You’re basically going to be stuck in the same situation that you were in in 1840, where nothing really got past Lake George or Warrensburg and it was nothing but horse and wagons from there on.

It’s desperately important for the nation as a whole to rebuild the railroad system, but it’s particularly critical in a place like the Adirondacks. I think we fail to appreciate how swiftly the car system could collapse.

MT: Have you ever put a timeline on it?

JHK: It is really pretty hard to predict. But I would say within ten years we’re going to have serious problems, and probably within five.

MT: I love the “Eyesore of the Month” department on Kunstler.com, and I wonder if you have any favorite Adirondack eyesores.

JHK: Like most of America, you could plunk down in any county in the USA except maybe the desert and you wouldn’t have to turn 60 degrees to see something really horrible.

MT: In the 1990s I went to a talk you gave at the Adirondack Park Agency — in your Geography of Nowhere days — and what you said about the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid really stuck with me.

JHK: It’s really f*****g horrible.

MT: You didn’t say that, you said something more like, “It says, ‘We don’t care about you.’ It’s a big wall facing the road.”

JHK: Actually that’s more succinct. Every time I go by I just marvel at it, that we’re a society that can’t even imagine putting up a building that has any generosity.

Probably 90 percent of the buildings anywhere in the USA now, including Saranac Lake, were either built with no thought or have been cobbed up so badly that they’ve destroyed their original value. We’re seeing in part the diminishing returns of technology. The more cheap crappy building materials you make available the more people will use them. The more easily they can be assembled the more universal they’ll become.

The good news is that we’ll have far fewer cheap synthetic modular building materials in the future. What we’ll see all across the nation is we’ll have to return to using regional materials. . . .

MT: Do you have a theme for your talk at Paul Smith’s College?

JHK: Generally addressing the themes of my 2005 book The Long Emergency, which is now under way. And I try to focus on intelligent responses to this predicament. I tend to be suspicious of the word “solutions.” I don’t use it myself because I notice when other people use it that they mean to suggest that there’s some way we can keep running American life the way we do, and I don’t subscribe to that. I think that we have to live a lot differently, and we’re pretty poorly prepared to think about that.

It’s not that surprising to me because the psychological investment in our current arrangement is so huge it’s just difficult for people to think about doing things differently — the investments we’ve made in everything, the automobile structure. Think of the Adirondacks: the fact that over the last 50 years the Adirondacks has based its economy on building houses and servicing the arrival of ever more people — that’s not going to be happening anymore. You’re going in the other direction now. And you’re not going to be building more houses in Rainbow Lake and other distant places.


Monday, August 11, 2008

OPINION: Going Local in The Adirondacks

There was an interesting story in Sunday’s Press Republican about Gordon Oil in AuSable Forks. The company was founded by Clifford Gordon in 1921 and is now in it’s third generation. Part of the story was a tiny detail at the end that says a lot about our current economic environment:

“Starting out as Standard Oil of New York — or SOCONY, as the sign on top of the display [at Gordon’s main office] states — in the 1920s it became Mobiloil and then, in 1931, Socony-Vacuum.

Following 1955, every decade or so the parent company underwent business transformations, which included Socony Mobil Oil Co., Mobil Oil Corp., Mobil Corp. and, in 1999, ExxonMobil…

Lewis [Gordon, who operated the business with his brother Waxy for 50 years) recalled the big tanks they used to have, which were cut down for steel during World War II.

“There used to be storage in Plattsburgh,” he said. “Big barges would come through Whitehall and unload up there, and we would go get it.

“Now it all has to be trucked in. All the big companies had their tanks there in Plattsburgh. It’s kind of too bad.”

When the company switched to electrically operated pumps years ago it gave it’s older pumps to a local farmer who used them for many years. That’s the kind of localism we’ve lost and it’s to our detriment.

Localism – involvement in local politics, local economies, an understanding of local culture and the environment, underlies much of the Green movement. It’s not just politics and the environment, it’s about supportive communities of neighbors working together to protect each other from the sometimes ravenous capitalist economy (seen most recently in energy and food costs). It’s what was happening when Gordon Oil gave over those pumps to that farmer. It’s what was destroyed when those tanks were taken down and not replaced.

Localism is also the future we face. I was recently talking with a local hardware store owner, part of the True Value chain. He sells lumber, paint, the usual goods (plus his simply built furniture). He was telling me that he needed a special piece of lumber that he didn’t stock. He took his truck to pick it up at the Home Depot in Queensbury; they were out of stock, so he went to the Lowe’s and found what he was looking for. The piece of lumber cost him an additional $30 in gas for the truck, plus about two hours of time away from his shop. That piece of lumber could have been boughten for a fraction of the price not a quarter-mile away – albeit at a competing lumber store.

The story of the fuel oil storage facilities and the local hardware store owner are revealing for local businesses. They once stocked nearly everything a household needed. As corporations took over our world, local supplies (seen on store shelfs and those Plattsburgh tanks) have had to pared down their stocks as consumers have opted to drive long miles to shop at big box stores (or shippers have turned to trucking and on-demand wharehousing).

That is something that we’re going to see come to an end, although it make take a while for our neighbors to break their old habits. Even if the price of oil goes down before the election (as we argued it would), the damage has been done, and Adirondackers have started turning local out of necessity. That necessity is something local greens have been vociferously saying was bound to happen since the late 1980s, even as they argued for serious political efforts toward locally sustained communities.

The trend toward localism has already begun in a number of segments of Adirondack society – especially among small farmers and local wood products producers – but now we are going to see a much more general trend. Already Chestertown, North Creek, Schroon Lake, and surrounding areas have taxis – that’s right, cabs, right here in the North Country above Warrensburg. Not just a single car either, several companies that range widely through the mountains. You don’t need a taxi unless you are going someplace local.

James Kunstler (recently interviewed locally here) has been the most public area voice for localism. His books are a must-read for people interested in what future local economies could look like:

The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (1994)

Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century (1998)

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2006)

One thing Kunstler makes clear, is that it’s not just about energy – food is as important, and there are several ways to get informed about going local.

NCPR recently celebrated 10 years of the Warrensburg Riverfront Farmers’ Market, and new markets have been established around the region in recent years. Local Harvest does a good job online showing where you can find local farmers and farmers markets in our region, but eating local means more than local farmer’s markets. It means connecting with a local CSA (Community Supporter Agriculture) farm, it means growing your own food (alone and in cooperation with your neighbors), and it means shopping locally for locally produced goods.

Speaking of growing your own, Cornell Cooperative Extension has a program for beginning framers that has recently expanded on the web. According to NCPR who recently reported the news, the new site:

…guides new farmers, and farmers changing crops or marketing strategy, step by step through starting a farm business: from setting goals and writing a business plan, to evaluating land, to taxes and permits. There’s a frequently asked questions section, worksheets to download, and an ongoing forum. The website is the latest offering from the New York Beginning Farmers Resource Center. The center is based at Cornell, but its roots are in the North Country.

We need to get to know our local farmers. The Wild Center is holding two more “Farmer Market Days 2008” on September 11th, and October 2nd “in celebration and promotion of the wonderful local food producers in the Adirondack Region.” Naturally we can’t live on the mostly fancy foods the Wild Center’s program seems to focus on, but their effort is a good start to introducing local farm operations to the Adirodnack community at large.

Adirondack Harvest is a buy local food group that was started 7 years ago. They recently received a $50,000 grant to expand their program, which they describe on their site:

Since its inception in 2001, Adirondack Harvest has grown to encompass Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, and Warren counties in northeastern New York. These counties contain major sections of the Adirondack Park and the Champlain Valley. Our focus has been on expanding markets for local farm products so that consumers have more choice of fresh farm products and on assisting farmers to increase sustainable production to meet the expanding markets.

A more direct path to lessening food costs and supporting local farms comes from Adirondack Pork, aka Yellow House Farm and a member of Adirondack Harvest, where you can buy a whole or half locally raised pig (or go in on one with another family). A whole pig serves a family of four for about 6-9 months, depending on your eating habits. They raise a pig for you until it weighs about 200-225 pounds. Your pork is prepared for you by a local butcher – you tell them any special cuts, wrapping, etc., you want. Your meat comes to you wrapped, labeled and frozen. It takes a lot less freezer space then you would imagine, and its cheaper.

The bottom line is the economy is changing and the sooner we accept that it true and end our reliance on the big box stores filled with products from half a world away and their corporate partners. They have a stranglehold on our local economy and it’s time we fought back.



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