Let’s Cut the Crap and Embrace Reality

20 thoughts on “Let’s Cut the Crap and Embrace Reality”

  1. Extremely good post, as usual. I just wanted to add that I fear many of us who are in the sub rosa category you mentioned will be forced into essentially living in a favela–that is, the authorities will be able to roust us at any time & tear down whatever we have constructed.

  2. For those who think cycling isn’t physically possible for them, I encourage you to look into adapted cycles, known by many other names. Eg. a hand-pedalled tricycle might be just the thing for someone with arthritis (mentioned above). Plenty of images on your favourite search engine.

  3. You’re right about the built environment; it’s just not possible to completely rebuild the country in, say, 30 years, and 30 years from now most incorporated areas will still be recognizably suburban. But the governmental structures and social structures can change, and I think they’re going to. The suburban Ponzi scheme is hitting its limit, development is switching back to urban areas, and those sprawling auto-oriented suburbs are going to start going bankrupt in large numbers soon.

    Municipal power is the linchpin of the complexes of use regulation that created auto-oriented sprawl, and once the municipalities are broke they will be hard-pressed to resist changes. The transition from McMansion to boardinghouse is already well underway. I think the fetish for lawns, aka mulch farms, is next, and we’ll see a big move to small-scale agriculture as you advocate. When people need jobs and houses are empty, restrictions on businesses in residential zones will fade. The houses and stroads will still be there, but they will be used differently, because they will *have* to be.

    1. In my experience the more a town is stressed the more it doubles and triples down on rules that mandate middle class appearances. I’m currently writing a blog post about that dynamic. People have an image in their minds of what a prosperous place looks like and laws are written and enforced to make people behave in that way. $500 fine if you don’t cut the grass, $500 fine if you don’t paint the house, $500 fine if you park a car in your own driveway, $500 fine if you dry clothes on a line in your own yard… It’s all “social engineering” designed to drive out “the wrong element.” And if a town is stuck with people who won’t or can’t live up to that standard the authorities will bleed them dry for much needed cash. Ferguson, MO is a classic case. The underlaying problem was insolvency – a problem with no real solution. The response was for local officials to cannibalize the citizenry to support municipal salaries and try and keep the lights on. The race thing was a sideshow.

      After that whole dynamic plays itself out – much like a fire running out of fuel – the authorities will disband from lack of funding or whatever. Then a town can begin the process of reinventing itself from a much lower level. Or the town will simply continue to die. A great deal depends on the personalities involved and a certain amount of luck.

  4. I actually do think the places that exist will evolve, because the people controlling things in their own interest at the local level will die off and will not always be replaced by members of their clan. I’ve seen things that seemed unchanging over what seemed a long time in my life change quite a bit over a somewhat longer timescale.

    One way things may evolve is a de jure acceptance of the de facto adaptations. I see things moving in that direction.

    1. In my experience I see two overwhelming trends that exist side-by-side.

      The first is ever larger and more complex organizations that arise to solve institutional problems. These are bureaucratic, technocratic, very expensive, and continuously in need of more revenue and control. Some are governmental. Some are corporate. Most are a blend of the two.

      The other is sub rosa with ad hoc work arounds at the margins. These are widely dispersed at the household level, operate with minimal complexity, are cheap, and continually attempt to avoid regulation and detection in order to survive.

      The two are mutually exclusive. The large institutional processes must pull every aspect of society in under its authority in order to achieve its goals as well as pay for the endless managerial and technological overhead. The other can’t survive if it’s forced to pay for the high burn rate of the larger complex systems.

  5. A very interesting column and one with which I generally agree. A few thoughts:

    1. I’d have to say that a prior poster, Jim Lambton, is right on the money. I live in New England where I have lived most of my 70+ years of life and in my part of the world, just within the last 2-3 years, I’ve noticed measurable differences in our climate, not just weather mind you, but visible change in the nature and duration of seasons. We seem to be in a period of transition from what was a fairly stable climate with regular and predictable seasons (and, yes, with a variation called weather) to seasons that no longer match the historical pattern.

    2. I’ve noticed a pattern of migration from big cities (Boston, New York, etc.) to smaller college towns by middle to upper middle class professionals whose jobs allow them to work from anywhere. And, as these towns reach their capacity to handle the influx, your points #3 and #4 begin to set in.

    3. There is a push into the more rural areas around these small towns by people thinking about adaptability and sustainability and how to be independent of the existing grid/infrastructure as they see their inability to influence the general direction of development in their towns, as well as, and perhaps more importantly, the existing/coming crash in infrastructure maintenance.

    Having lived in our small college town for 35 years, we are now looking at moving to a small rural town nearby to build an off the grid, zero net energy/solar/wind powered and wood heated small house with farm land.

    1. I too have reached the conclusion that the sweet spot for the future isn’t a big hyper efficient city or a remote cabin in the woods. It’s actually the small town as you described. A walkable bikeable location on the town/farm interface provides the possibility of a fair degree of self reliance (not “self sufficiency”) at a reasonable price point. There’s enough land for a meaningful food garden and some small livestock with likeminded helpful neighbors. Super insulate the buildings, create simple parallel back-up infrastructure for water and power… None of that is possible in an apartment in the city center or suburban HOA environment.

    2. Rene, I can appreciate your plans, but please be aware of the huge challenges ahead with an off-grid solar or wind setup. As an electrical engineer aware of our planet’s limited and slowly depleting supplies of petroleum, I’ve been fascinated by that sort of thing for many years. The recent drop in PV solar panel prices piqued my interest again. It turns out, though, that the panels represent just a fraction of the overall costs. The biggest headache remains the battery storage system. Our battery technology is still pretty much where it was a hundred years ago: big expensive boxes full of lead and sulphuric acid that need to be replaced every 5-10 years.

      If you want to run even a modest home with efficient lighting, appliances, etc. off the grid with PV solar, expect to spend $4,000 for the panels (it was twice that a few years ago), $4,000 for a ground-mounting structure, $5,000 for the charge controller, inverter, and code-compliance equipment, and $10,000 for the batteries, plus another few thousand for things that escape my mind at the moment. And the battery cost is a recurring one.

      You won’t be running a clothes dryer, oven, or water heater with this setup, but I think you probably guessed that already.

      I wish there were better news on that front, but felt I should share what I’ve learned. Best wishes!

      1. In my experience people obsess about being off grid for emotional or philosophical rather than practical reasons. I’ve found the sweet spot is to live in an ordinary home and take a three step approach.

        First, reduce your need for energy by adding lots of insulation, upgrading windows and doors, using more efficient machines – and here’s the biggie – learning to live without so many machines in the first place. Get yourself a damn clothes line for the back yard. Cover the south and west sides of your house with awnings and vines to keep the house cool in summer. When it’s time to replace your old roof, install a metal roof that bounces heat away. https://granolashotgun.com/2016/12/27/how-to-ride-the-slide-suburban-homesteading/

        Second, install modest mostly passive back-up systems for critical needs like water and heat – a wood stove and large rainwater cistern for example are moderately priced, pretty easy to install, and are great for unexpected emergency situations. https://granolashotgun.com/2017/05/23/a-dry-run/

        Third, phase in a small amount of power generation that can supply essential needs without running the full compliment of plasma TVs and giant refrigerators. A passive solar water heater is the biggest bang for the buck. A few PV panels can keep water pumps going and a couple of lights on. After food, water, heat, and a little lighting everything else is discretionary.

        And here’s a critical point… Being “off grid” isn’t really going to make you independent of anything if your cabin in the woods requires you to drive half an hour over a mountainside to get to town. Transportation and vehicle fuel – not to mention car payments, insurance, blah, blah, blah – negate all the other aspects of an off grid life. It’s better to live close enough to civilization that you can walk or ride a bike to essential destinations. I recommend life in a small town in the country or the suburban/rural interface.

        1. Johnny,

          Your points are well taken and the suggestions you make are the choices we have already made/are discussing. We’ve been heating with wood for over two decades (about 5 cords a year) and plan to super insualte our new house, good windows; doors, etc. When we built our current house about 25 years ago, it was pretty much state the art at that time, but now we can see how much more we can do. We will still be somewhat dependent on our hybrid car as nether of us can ride a bike anymore (arthritis, etc.), but we will be living next to a farm and will have our own garden.

      2. Ed,

        Thanks for your comments and input. I’m somewhat aware of these issues as my son-in-law is an engineer and I seek out his input regularly. We live pretty simply at this point and are looking to downsize. I expect our biggest electrical usage will be water pump for our well, the fridge (we’re looking at the most efficient models) and our computers (I’m still an active photographer and need the processing power). Know anything about the newer Tesla batteries?

  6. People already seem to be pushing back on the technology (“internet of things”) precisely because of the inherent hidden vulnerability.

    Or maybe it’s just other seniors like me who can’t see the value of internet connected light bulbs and refrigerators.

  7. Under 5. Exogenous Forces, you left out the most important force of all – the climate, which is becoming hotter, wetter, dryer, different, more violent and basically unstable in many areas of the world. Some places are much more stable, though different, others are simply becoming dangerous places to live.
    I enjoy the thought that goes into each of your posts, they provide an accurate view of the direction much of the suburban world is heading.

    1. I occasionally touch on Climate Change, but I keep it light. Notice my link to my King Tide post highlighted under “natural cycles.” The climate has always been changing long before civilization came along. Ice ages, etc. There’s really no point in engaging in a conversation about human causes. We aren’t going to stop burning coal and oil. We just aren’t. That’s the reality.

      I often have chats with people who are passionate about the need to curtail carbon emissions and in the same breath they talk about their next vacation involving a long flight to a distant land. Cognitive dissonance. The climate will change. It always has. And humans will adapt – or not.

      The troubles in Syria were triggered by a long drought that drove peasant farmers into cities looking for work. When the government didn’t respond to their needs and cracked down instead it caused a civil war.

      Similar drought wars were instigated in Somalia. Pakistan and India are incredibly stressed and vulnerable due to rising population and a degradation of the carrying capacity of the land –
      adding to the likelihood of conflict there.

      I’ve argued that the Arab Spring was primarily the result of Egypt tipping from a grain and oil exporter to a grain and oil importer. This was the result of a population explosion and resource depletion. When the government could no longer afford to subsidize bread and fuel the population rose up in anger.

      But very few people are inclined to interpret events in that way. When hordes of desperate refugees wash up on the shores of Greece and Italy the conversation is about radical Islam.

      The ultimate “solution” is to reduce the surplus population one way or another. That’s going to be big fun. Don’t think it won’t arrive on your doorstep – perhaps as your children are drawn in to military service – wherever you live.

      1. You systemetize everything down to its essence with this post and your comment in particular. Our situation is “hopeless” in the sense that it is not possible to keep an unsustainable arrangement going. It may be possible for human societies to exist into the future, but not with suburban baggage, or the idea that you’re entitled to fly anywhere you want.

        I’ve come to the same place as you. After limiting my every material want as much as I could, I saw it didn’t make any difference. I’m one person. Nobody else is going to not fly or wait ten minutes for a bus, and shouting about it just makes you look crazy.

        It’s too bad that Americans aren’t the noble Christians they believe themselves to be. They proved it when they raged against Carter and his plea to be less material, to wear a sweater. Reagan is who we really are. It’s too bad that’s led us to be the biggest contributor to the coming collapse, and perhaps even omnicide, but so it goes.

        So, talking about living in a small town is not only uplifting, but it’s something productive you can do, and it’s the sort of crazy the authorities aren’t interested in.

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