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Investing in a post-global world

The ideas of James Howard Kunstler, the keynote speaker at the recent Sullivan Renaissance Expo, provide an interesting prism through which to evaluate the giant stimulus package just signed into law. That act is purportedly meant not just to rescue, but to effect long-term change. In order to do that, it can’t just be about spending, but about investment. And that investment can’t just be in the repair and maintenance of existing infrastructure, but in the creation of new infrastructure that embraces the realities of the 21st century.

There is widespread consensus—certainly Kunstler and Obama would both agree—that the leading 21st-century economic reality is the fact that fossil fuels are on the way out. But a substantial disagreement exists with regard to how we address that issue. One school of thought, by far the most common, emphasizes the development of alternative sources of energy. The other, typified by Kunstler, emphasizes the need to change our way of life and the infrastructure that supports it to use less energy, and to use the existing energy more efficiently. That means a lot less transportation of both people and goods: in short, localization.

Both schools of thought contain elements of the truth. The problem is that, in the current national dialogue, the latter school is almost completely ignored. And that is reflected in the stimulus package. It is to be commended for providing a great deal of funding for development of and incentives for using alternative energy sources. And it does give a nod to the need to change our way of doing business by funding the retrofitting of existing buildings for increased energy efficiency, the development of energy-efficient vehicles and the like.

What is largely lacking, however, is recognition of the point that Kunstler stresses: that as long as we have an infrastructure that depends on the intensive use of physical transportation, our demand for energy will tend to outstrip our supply. If we truly want to invest in infrastructure for the 21st century, we should be building walkable communities, revitalizing downtowns, encouraging small-scale local agriculture and developing public ground transportation. We should be emphasizing the local generation of energy rather than creating vast national systems. With the exception of dollars targeted for rail, the stimulus plan provides little help on any of these.

Despite his talk about change, Obama’s stimulus plan lacks an overriding vision of what it is we are changing toward: it seems to be a proposal to do an end run on fossil fuels so we can keep on living in the style to which we have become accustomed. We believe the idea of a post-global world could provide such a vision. It is not necessarily a grim vision, either. It posits smaller, more tightly-knit communities in highly self-sufficient regions with more permanent populations. In terms of its ability to provide a beautiful, healthy natural environment, a safer food supply, a nurturing community and greater job security, it could be argued that localization represents a significant improvement over the increasingly soulless indifference of the global society we developed in the late 20th century.

All of this does not mean completely abandoning global trade, and certainly not the global network of communications. But it does mean that there should be a re-emphasis on local production and a cutback on heedless consumption. It also means that when you talk about infrastructure investment, it should mean investment in the type of infrastructure that will allow us to de-emphasize the automobile and re-emphasize more walkable, self-sufficient communities.

While national vision may still be lacking in this area, we were pleased with a list of projects recently proposed as eligible for stimulus spending by the Sullivan County Legislature. In addition to projects involving retrofitting for energy-efficiency, there are several major items in line with the idea of a post-global community. Among these are the Ag Industrial Park, which would provide local food-processing facilities that would help distribute farm goods to restaurants, households and businesses locally and in nearby metropolitan areas, and a rail-to-trail project that would link existing trails to provide a huge network covering the entire county. Talk about walkable.

Obama’s presidency is young yet, and the latest stimulus package is not likely to be the last big wad of cash invested into the economy. In the meantime, we are glad to see that some in own little corner of the world are doing the kind of thinking and planning necessary to thrive in a post-global world.

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Dr. Punnybone

The Grin Reaper

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Providing our own food

To the editor:

Awaken! The oil age is over. Even though fuel prices have dropped since last summer, you know very well that they are going up again soon and will continue to rise and change the way we live dramatically. There’ll be less energy and less stuff.

Oil is becoming increasingly unavailable to us. Mexico, for instance, has been our third-largest supplier of oil in recent times. Now its biggest field is declining rapidly while its own needs soar and it will soon be unable to sell to us. The same story is being repeated with oil exporters all over the world.