Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What Did They Expect?

I happen to know a super-commuter. I've mentioned him before. He is one of those late-stage ultra-exurbanites who bought a home roughly 100 miles from his workplace back when getting a big house out in the cornfields with an ARM was all the rage. Gas has tripled in price since he fixed his residence and his job at 100 miles apart. I dare not ask him what's going on with the interest rates on his mortgage. The poor man seems pretty frantic as it is. His behavior is telling; he takes every chance to drum up a conversation with me about all the solutions that the new administration will usher in to cure the headache of high oil prices. And of course to his mind it's all the fault of politics and greedy traders.

I try to explain in the simplest terms that I know that the price is the collective result of billions of bipeds insisting on living as far from their daily destinations as possible then expecting to be able to use oil to power machines to ferry them these absurd distances. I also mention that oil is used to sustain ever-growing numbers of these two-legged locust-bunnies by means of the artificial petro-fertilizers that boost the planet's caloric carrying capacity. Of course this fellow and the 200 odd million lumpenproletariat like him will not let logic get in the way now. They've invested too much psychologically and financially in a way of life that is (was) glaringly unsustainable. I don't like to be so hard on them, however. The traditional city was quickly obliterated by the industrial tumor back when America was young and cities in the New World have spent most of their lives being ugly, dehumanizing places. No wonder the working class fled them as soon as the car and cheap gas made it possible to do so every day after work. And which species doesn't reproduce as much as possible given the chance? The individual bad choices that led us to this endgame were as innumerable as the stars, but here we are in any case.

The times they will be very hard. I, however, am relatively comfortable despite it all. My fanny will feel the flames, too, no doubt, but I moved to an old urban center in a small, but tastefully prewar apartment; I remain blissfully childless. I have no gas tank to fill up, nor child to feed, nor mortgage to service. I have a monthly transit card to buy for the short bus ride to work, but otherwise can walk to what I need. I have to pay higher food prices and home heating and cooling energy costs like everyone else, but not having to pay for gas leaves a lot of money free for food and not having a large place means the energy bills just don't get that bad. Those of you who have bought a parcel of land in the middle of nowhere and who are growing your own food organically and learning to sew up your own wounds as well as your own clothes will shake your heads and say I haven't done enough. You're probably right, but the theme of this blog has always been that it's better than being stuck in the suburbs...for now at least.

I admit to wry smiling and the occasional chuckling out loud when I think of the same people who laughed at my dire predictions and lifestyle changes and who are now trying to decide between feeding the kids or the family car. The super-commuter acquaintance is hoping that the guv'ment will lay down high speed rail lines like they have crisscrossing Europe or that he will get a transfer closer to home even if the geopolitics that have inflated the price aren't worked out. I humbly submit that it was folly to move 100 miles from work then hope that it would somehow all work out, that energy prices would stay low even though the number of people in the world trying the same type of exurbanist stunt was set to double and triple. Moving 100 miles from work in order to buy the most house possible only makes sense when oil is under $20/barrel. It's a precarious way to live, especially with all the clear signs that our party with the non-renewable stuff that makes multi-mile daily commutes possible is about to wind down. Of course, then one couldn't spare the techno-faerie tale pimps some blame. These folks kept telling us that renewable sources of energy could replace non-renewable oil and allow us to keep partying just the same. Never mind that solar panels, metal windmills, et alia need a fossil fuel infrastructure to make their mass production possible; these alternatives could never offer the energy density necessary to justify their existence long-term, but it's easier to listen to the soft cooings of pundits that tell you your lifestyle is non-negotiable and deserved rather than the physicists who tell you it is impossible to maintain and likely coming to a swift, messy end.

So my acquaintance and millions like him are trapped in homes that have suddenly become very hard to sell or afford to keep and with commutes they simply can no longer afford. How much longer can he keep putting the gas on the credit card before he is tapped out? But I mean; what was this man thinking? There will come a time when those of us who survive the unwinding of the world we've come to know will tell our grandchildren and great grandchildren stories of when energy was so abundant and cheap that we all lived "out in the country" where we could afford manses and daily travel dozens of miles to cities full of skyscrapers. Our little descendants will stare at us with saucer-big eyes and will not quite believe the world we describe was ever real, the way the other world of dragons and faeries isn't real either.