I heard a rumor recently that James Howard Kunstler may be in Savannah this Winter. For those of you have not heard of him, he is most well known for his controversial book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century. In this book, Kunstler makes the case that we are facing a coming energy crisis of unprecedented proportions. He does not believe any new technology will be developed quickly enough to offset this, particularly because the economy that drives such innovation is still heavily dependent on dwindling fossil fuels. He postulates that the automobile will become less and less a part of modern life, as will our dependence on food and products shipped from far-off places (like California and Mexico, much less China). He offers a recipe by which to survive the catastrophe, but none to avoid it.
Having grown up in the information age, I tend to be a technological optimist. If we put our minds to it, we can overcome any challenges. Now, with Barack Obama elected president, we can expect a lot of resources to be devoted to developing a green economy. But, is it too little too late? Should we be wasting precious resources on pipe dreams like cars that run on algae? Does it even make sense to keep try to keep the suburban American dream alive? Is there a better way to use our time and effort, especially when we are talking about money our government does not have. Well, a recent panel in the Freakonomics blog at The New York Times asked just that question:
… we gathered up a group of smart people — James Kunstler, Thomas Antus, Jan Brueckner, Gary Gates, John Archer, Alan Berube, and Lawrence Levy — and asked them the following:
What will U.S. suburbs look like in 40 years?
Kunstler pulls no punches:
While this doesn’t bode well for suburban America, the critique contains the seeds of it’s own solution—the return to small towns and small cities. For those who spend their days in historic Savannah, Kunstler’s description sounds very familiar—walkable, on a river, mixed residential and commercial use, close to farmland, etc. Right here, we have the chance to provide an alternative model of how we move forward. I am not saying that we should abandon our research into alternative fuels, but that is for federal and state dollars. How should we spend our money and time locally to survive the coming catastrophe?
Well, we are starting to see some interesting developments. We now have two weekly Farmer’s markets (and one, the Trustee’s Market, is indoors and year round). We have one long time family business (Brighter Day) that has long provided us with sustainable local meats and produce, not to mention a wide range of natural healthcare products. Brighter Day had a food tasting and product sampling event this past weekend and the turnout was huge. As I munched on some stir-fried tofu and seaweed salad at their lunch counter this afternoon, I overheard the owner telling some long time customers that his vendors had never seen such a large turnout for a similar event anywhere in the country. Lil’ ol’ Savannah—how about that? It reminded me of the first meeting of the local networking group GreenDrinks Savannah, which also had the largest per capita turnout in the history of this international organization. We need to support these ventures to develop this community and core sustainable infrastructure we will depend on if catastrophe hits. And like a few of the other things I will mention, if we are so fortunate as to avoid this scenario (which I believe we will—technological optimist here, remember), we will still have cultivated businesses and other resources that are good for our community, regardless.
So what else do we need to do? Perhaps, we can create a network of community gardens. I see many empty lots throughout the city that would be perfect. Michael Maddox, a city employee and organic farmer, is one who has expressed interest in just such an idea. Michael is also doing something on a larger scale that we might see more of. He is the founder of a sustainable community called Green Bridge Farm on 25 wooded acres in Effingham county. We need to make this town more bicycle friendly. The first things we need is more bike lanes. The easier and safer we make it to ride, the more who will do it. If this is your passion, get involved with the Savannah Bicycle Campaign. If you don’t ride, walk. It’s good for you. You will lose weight, get healthier, and reduce your future medical bills. Learn about medicinal herbs that you can grow in your yard. While herbs are certainly not cures for disease, there are many safe ones that can be used to treat a lot of the suffering of modern life (ginger for stomach upset and aching joints, valerian for insomnia, mint for sinus congestion, etc.) You get to avoid dangerous drugs and reduce your healthcare costs some more.
These are just a few simple things we might do personally and as a community. Doing some gardening in your yard or riding your bike is something you can get started on today. Creating a network of community gardens or and expansion of bike lanes is something that requires community organizing. I recently started a social networking site for just such organizational activities. All SCAD staff, faculty and students are invited to join us at GreenSpace Savannah. As President-elect Obama said in his acceptance speech last night, “This is our moment. This is our time.” Let’s not waste it.