“Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Ah, but it’s all right, all right
I’m just weary to my bones.
Still you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant
So far away from home. So far away from home.”
- Paul Simon
Over the river and through the woods.
Or—to state our trajectory more accurately—through the woods and over the river; we hung a left past the bridge; then a right; a left; a zig; a zag; another right; and there we were at grandma’s house—just 515 miles from transom to transom. Twenty hours total driving time there and back again, divided in half by a two-week visit to my partner’s home place.
That this sort of casual travel is possible is one of the miracles of 20th century technological civilization. Mobility has blessed and cursed us, enabling an endless diaspora while chaining us to our machines. In the process our dispersal may well have become the biggest psychological obstacle to creation of a sustainable society. And creation of a sustainable society is essential if we are to mitigate the human impact on global climate change.
And while I’m pointing a finger I’m not afraid to admit my own culpability.
Between April 2 and April 11 of 2010 I traveled more than 10,000 miles while feeling more than a little carbon guilt. I flew to Newark to give a speech and then to Hawaii. My best buddy from high school gave me a ticket to visit his home there. I assuaged myself in part by attending a symposium on alternative fuels hosted by the U.S. Navy which announced plans to derive 70 percent of its fuel from renewables by 2030. They’ve even figured out how to distill jet fuel from switchgrass. The state of Hawaii has made the same commitment to 70 percent renewables by 2030.
Other speeches in 2010 took me to Minneapolis and Denver, adding another 5,000 miles to my hemispheric walkabout. Toss in 10- or 15,000 miles of automobile travel, and the total is more than once around the earth.
In 2011 I flew a bit less, perhaps 6,000 miles, speaking in Cambridge and Des Moines, and with three visits to Washington DC, including a protest against the XL Pipeline, but drove more, criss-crossing Western North Carolina during my run for Congress.
And flights are up again this year: Between Miami, Providence, Denver, and Winter Park, Florida, nearly 8,000 miles, with another trip to South Florida scheduled for this December.
But my carbon guilt is deeper and wider than that. Up to the turn of the millennium I spent a great deal of time on the road, for pleasure. Cheap oil let me visit the Grand Canyon and the Badlands, New Mexican mesas and Aztec ruins, Big Sur and the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver and Fairbanks and Anchorage, the Yukon, New Orleans and Chicago, San Franciso and Washington, DC, Tijuana and Newfoundland, the Little Big Horn and the Saw Tooth range, the Okefenokee and the Louisiana bayou. I’ve canoed in every Great Lake and most of North America’s river systems. I’ve hiked in Yellowstone and the Snake River Canyon and the Chiricahuas and the White Mountains and the Green Mountains and the Cascades, the Catskills and the Sierra Nevada and the Sand Hills and the Ozarks, of course the Southern Applachians and too many more places to easily catalog. It was a grand adventure and it was cheap.
Taking the long view—disastrously cheap.
In addition to my former partner, Susan’s, inclination toward travel and my own willingness, there’s a longer-term picture to consider as well. My parents met and married in Florida, though Dad was born in Chicago (as was I). The introduction occurred because my Mom had worked in New York City for a couple of years, where she met Dad’s cousin (also from the Chicago area) who suggested the two get together after Mom returned to her high school home town, Orlando, where Dad was building homes and breeding Shetland sheep dogs. Mom was born and half-way raised in Pittsburgh. I had moved to New Hampshire and then North Carolina with a year-long stop-over in Arizona. But my trajectory had included junior high in Long Island, New York, and high school in Florida, with a couple of years of college in Atlanta.
Susan’s parents settled on her grandmother’s farm-turned-suburbia in Ohio, and her aunts, uncles, cousins and two siblings stayed close to home, but her other brother moved to Tucson, then Portland, Oregon. A niece and nephews spun out to Washington, DC, Knoxville and Salt Lake City/Dallas and then Atlanta, respectively. Neither of our families was particularly atypical for the post-WWII years. We spread out and dissolved the extended families of past generations. We did so because we could—often for better job prospects, sometimes on whims, for love, or, pretty often, simply to shake off the past. My buddy in Hawaii, who has since retired to Asheville, held jobs in, Florida, Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania before he headed west and his wife, from Pennsylvania who he met and married in Virginia, met her first husband in Maryland.
Cheap energy made cost no real object, and that same cheap energy made family visits, shared holidays, weddings and funerals and graduations and other base-touching reasonably affordable.
But the families were fragmented despite phone calls and (increasingly rare) written letters. (E-mail has lately abetted better and more frequent contact for many.) The easy distancing could engender real difficulty when a physically remote mother or father needed nursing care and the lack of nearby grandparents shifted more children into daycare.
Whether this social fracturing has been, on the whole, good or bad is open to debate, but the fact that cheap oil had social consequences is not.
My holiday journey over the river and through the woods traversed a landscape in transition. Farmland was sprouting subdivisions as thick and fast as springtime weeds, particularly along the Interstate arteries. The previous week, one of Susan’s brothers went to an auction of the farm which he (and their father before him) worked on as a young man. The gavel came down to the tune of one and a half million bucks, paid by a developer hell-bent on suburbia.
We have painted ourselves into a very difficult corner as cities metastasize into surrounding healthy tissue. The sprawl enabled by fossil fuel combustion has built us into a dependence on that technology that becomes harder and harder to break.
Look at the conundrum: Cheap mobility facilitates both commuting and distribution of goods. Easy commuting drives up the use-value of land far outside the cities, a change which also raises property taxes. At the same time, the distribution network permits import of food from lower valued land (usually with lower priced labor). Beleaguered farmers facing underpriced competition and overpriced land are understandably tempted to liquidate. The whole scheme floats on cut-rate oil.
Each new home on former farm land further entrenches political support for the status quo. People who have invested their savings in a home and who are dependent on a distant job to keep up mortgage payments are vested in the present cheap-oil economy. Adding insult to the internal combustion injury of the biosphere, the average size of new homes in the U.S. has grown enormously over the past five decades. More heated space will require more heat for decades into the future. Even construction methods are affected, as when cost/benefit considerations dictate the return on insulation or insulating windows vis-a-vis cheap energy.
At the same time, inexpensive oil encourages investment in inefficient vehicles, and—via conversion to electricity—in inefficient appliances of all sorts. Each consumer decision against conservation results in further stasis. A new auto which uses twice as much fuel as an alternative model locks that demand into our energy equation for twenty years or more. Ditto for refrigerators, freezers, ranges, water heaters and a host of smaller gadgets.
The chief obstacles to creation of more efficient, more frequent, more user-friendly public transit are low population density and cheap gas — and really, those are two sides of the same coin. During the oil price spike which some authorities believe precipitated our recent Great Recession, ridership on city transit systems kicked up significantly. The drop in ridership since 2009 is partly due to a temporary drop in fuel prices, elevated unemployment, and acceptance of $4 gasoline as the new normal.
And while I’m on the subject of transit, I could point out that subsidy for a transit system is a direct subsidy of employers in cities who hire low wage workers. Dish washers and bussers and other low-wage jobs frequently don’t pay enough to support automobile ownership and use. So many businesses are completely dependent on the transit system to enable their employment of those workers, at least at the wages generally offered. The government subsidies of transit would be lower if ridership were higher, so once again, cheap gas skews the equation.
Meanwhile the supply lines for food grow ever longer, and more and more of the fertilizer supply comes directly from what Thom Hartmann aptly referred to as “ancient sunlight”—fossil fuels stored up over millennia.
The U.S. has created one of the least efficient technological societies on the planet. While it’s true that we have improved efficiency over time, other countries have pushed fuel prices up through taxation to encourage conservation and made far greater strides. We have intentionally kept fuel prices low—an intentional subsidy to drivers, industry and agriculture, which, as I just mentioned, also creates demand for collateral subsidy of transit. With oil prices kept down, farm labor is devalued as well, since workers compete with cheaply fueled engines. This feeds directly into the issue of immigration because the low wages offered by farmers attract workers for whom those wages represent a step-up.
Because chemical nitrogen fertilizer comes from underpriced natural gas, we tilt the market toward chemical agriculture and away from organic. The price differential between organic and non-organic food is largely created by low priced fossil fuel supplies.
Moreover, we subsidize oil with tax money for military intervention as well as funding health care costs incurred by pollution victims. Our inefficient vehicles and high reliance on automobile use has created a childhood asthma epidemic, directly attributable to auto exhaust. Imagine how different our economic choices might be if we paid for wars and health care with taxes on the fossil fuels that create the need in the first place. In worst case conditions, such as the BP death gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, we will be dealing with toxins in the food chain for decades. The cost will never be accurately assessed.
The damage will not abate in our lifetimes.
More subtly, oil costs are externalized in the form of forest and agricultural decline resulting from acid deposition, nitrous oxides and low-level ozone. Citizens of WNC receive daily warnings about air quality and are often urged not to engage in overmuch outdoor activity because we are Code Yellow or Orange.
This in a region once famous for it’s healthful air.
When I spoke earlier of mothers and fathers and children, I was, of course, actually talking about love and sex, and modern sexuality is, for all practical purposes, a petrochemical product even before you include condoms … which you should, because today’s safe sex practices are at least partly necessary because global transportation greatly increased the dispersal of sexually transmitted diseases.
I’m of the generation that explored its first lessons in practical anatomy at drive-in movie theaters. The motel, another augmentation for close personal relationships, was invented to serve travelers on the highway system developed by the Eisenhower administration to help General Motors sell cars. The car and the motor-hotel provided the means to find privacy and anonymity that was rare in less energy intensive times.
After going to movies or ball games, my crowd in high school used to drive to a Methodist Church parking lot that was surrounded by dense shrubs and fronted on a lake. The town police knew we were basically good kids and left us alone, our parents hoped we were good kids and didn’t much complain, we all felt entirely safe because we were surrounded by friends’ in their own cars, and we were pretty much left to our own devices.
My device was a 1948 Plymouth Special Deluxe, with suicide doors in back that opened on a rear seat that looked like a living room sofa. I bought it from the original owner when I was 17 and it was 20 years old and paid $75. I later gave it to my cousin who blew the engine and had it junked. I saw one online the other day offered for $35,000, ah the mistakes of youth.
More importantly, the oil economy profoundly affected the institution of marriage. World War II was, in many ways, a war about control of oil. Germany invaded North Africa in an effort to access Arab oil fields and Japan sought control of Malaya and Indonesia for oil and rubber. The U.S. won the war at least in part because we had ample domestic oil to fuel industry and war machines. There was a major mobilization of men for that war effort, women moved into traditional male jobs and the G.I. Bill permitted unprecedented access to college education. The geographical and social mobility had a huge effect on the availability of alternative mates.
Instead of marrying a high school sweetheart and settling in our hometowns, we were suddenly mixing it up.
Thirty-two years ago I moved to North Carolina and landed in a vacation home subdivision populated by Floridians on the edge of the Broad River Township, which is now part of Black Mountain. Over my twenty years there I came to understand that thirty years further back that valley had been all but cut off from the modern world. A round trip to the nearest accessible town of Hendersonville began before dawn and ended after dark even if your horses didn’t tarry along the way. The Ledbetters and the Owenbys each had 13 children and a dozen of each brood married a dozen of the other.
During the 1950s, oil-powered bulldozers built by the companies that built tanks for the war pushed a road through a mountain pass and most of the children of those dozen families left for good, finding and marrying their partners in far off Asheville, Hickory or Charlotte.
As Billy Wheeler and others have sung it,
“I can’t help but blamin’ your goin’
On the coming, the coming of the roads.”
Then too, the wider choice and the ability of women to join the workforce made divorce a much more tenable or even attractive option than in an earlier time.
I mentioned a quiet church parking lot, and note that religion has been changed by cheap energy too. Megachurches are commuter churches in the same way that sports stadiums and big civic centers and big golf tournaments are commuter entertainment venues.
The reason sports stars garner such huge salaries is a phenomenon largely driven by cheap fuel. The only way NFL and NBA games and baseball pennant races are possible in their modern form is because it’s cheap to fly thousands of players all over the country to perform in venues accessed by millions of fans who rely on cheap energy to attend the games. I suppose we could get around that by creating a sports city somewhere, where all the players lived and then just televise all the games, but I think the excitement would drain out pretty fast if all the home teams lived in the same town.
Then too, many of us dance when we date, or go to concerts. Look at what cheap gas has done to music! Before WWII, if you lived in a big city, the fancy dance clubs and restaurants had resident orchestras and dance bands. If you lived in a small town, you were lucky if a couple of local folks played banjos or fiddles or guitars, and you’d go to barn dances and church socials to sing or dance.
Then came the boom in recorded music, electrified instruments, radio and TV, and the interstate highway system. Now three or four musicians could make more noise than Count Basie’s whole orchestra and repeated air play made new songs more popular than classic folk tunes. The four musicians pile into a van with their gear and start touring. Suddenly you could hear the newest pop song from the actual band that recorded it and as those bands grew in wealth they could afford to produce shows that left local bands in the dust. Shows moved from dance clubs to stadiums and civic centers, and they too became commuter events. Superstars were born.
Connecting sports and music stardom with religion, we saw the rise of Billy Graham and the mass revival. When he was a boy the touring superstars in the Bible belt were preachers who set up tent meetings for weeks at a time. Graham’s boyhood hero was Mordecai Ham, an anti-semitic fire and brimstone character who was sort of the Chuck Norris of the tent circuit. Graham built on that model with the new technology of pop music and worked the sports stadiums and civic centers to create huge commuter events that lasted just a day or a few. The economy of cheap gasoline made moving the show much more affordable. So whereas Ham would fleece the same few hundred townfolk for a month or more, Graham could fleece hundreds of thousands all around the world in the same time period.
The existence of superstars in sports, entertainment, and religion has had a collateral effect on society that is widespread and, in my view, pernicious. A lot of kids growing up in this superstar society believe that the same success and wealth is available to them. That idea tends to devalue education and everyday jobs and puts the focus on talent and luck. The fact that a kid from public housing has a much better chance of being a heart surgeon than a basketball star is lost. The fact that study and hard work can let you fashion a satisfying and productive life is set aside. Instant wealth seems possible just around the corner, as near as a winning lottery ticket.
And far beyond the immediate effect on one child, is the effect on many adults.
Cheap energy has been at the core of a modern mindset that anything is possible, that everyone has a shot at the gold ring. Who wants to be a millionaire? Who wants to dance with the stars? Who wants to be a survivor and make a killing on Wall Street?
That has infected our politics. Many people, imagining that they too will soon be rich, cast their lot with the the rich. They then vote for policies that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor. They complain about tax hikes for the rich, even when there are tax cuts for the poor, unwilling to accept that they are, and will almost to a person, always be among the 95 percent who are relatively poor. They buy into political viewpoints that teach them that it’s poor immigrants who are keeping them down, not their own choices in the voting booth. Cheap gas has fueled both the machines and the machine politics that has created the widest wealth gap in the history of the world.
And the machines include poker machines and other forms of gaming. In a world where luck is considered to be more the arbiter of success than work, gambling makes perfect sense. Lottery tickets, limos to Harrahs, weekends in Las Vegas and Buncombe County’s former sheriff Bobby Medford’s video poker racketeering are all part of that mindset. It’s really kind of boggling when you consider the popularity of gambling these days, where everyone knows that the house always, ultimately wins and it’s considered to be great good fun to give more than you can afford to corporations which are richer than you can imagine.
In order to move toward true sustainability we must—by definition—decouple our lives from dependence on non-renewable resources, but the political will for such sweeping change is conspicuously rare.
Though I treasure the chance to spend some holiday time with distant family members and friends, it is impossible to shake a sense of foreboding. The policies that made that Thanksgiving visit possible will make our entire economic structure impossible in the not-too-distant future as the oil runs out.
There is no substitute for oil on the near horizon, a fuel so condensed and portable and malleable that it is the lifeblood of modern technological society. If you have a 150 horsepower engine in your car, you are obtaining the work of 150 horses for $3.65 per gallon. Where will you find a substitute for those horses? We are building toward a crash of monumental proportions, on a scale that could easily dwarf the experience of the Great Depression or the current Great Recession. At least in the 1930s most of us lived closer to the farm, to our work, and to our families.
We chose to believe that low fuel prices were a social good. Our elected officials made sure THAT continued, at least in part because it was an easy issue. People notice how much it costs to fill their tanks and fill their grocery bags and if those prices jump up an opposition candidate can promise to knock things back down. So incumbents keep the lid on. The larger costs are hidden and spread out as hospital bills, acidified lakes, military intervention, and more—invisible in plain sight because they are diffuse and the dots haven’t been well connected in the public mind.
Though much of my air travel in recent years has come about due to speaking engagements, two of my trips this year involved a much more personal matter. My younger brother died suddenly on March 11, in Bryson City. On March 13 I flew to Miami to be with my 90 year old mother to support each other in that time of shock and loss and grief. Two weeks ago today, I honored my brother’s wishes and scattered Cameron’s ashes on a lake in Winter Park, Florida—the lake on whose shores we lived during our teenage years.
In his life and death there’s another tale of the modern diaspora. Mom has divided her time between Miami and Spruce Pine in recent years. Cam lived in Bryson. I live in Asheville.
Scattered to the wind, we are, and living amidst strangers. We have been fooled by cheap energy into choices we might soon regret. Whether we are down to our last five drops of gasoline, as predicted by peak oil calculations, or down to the last 5 million barrels we can burn before runaway greenhouse warming makes our planet uninhabitable, I fear it may be a very, very long walk home.
“So far away from home.”