Scenarios: Slow Connections
In his earlier books James Howard Kunstler had argued that suburban living was inhumane and wasteful, and he urged prescriptions for rebuilding suburbs in denser patterns based on ideas from the New Urbanism. But in his The Long Emergency he foresaw a darker future, where we were far too dependent on oil to maintain our networks of transportation and communication. More ominously, he argued that the possible energy sources that might replace oil would depend upon industrial and transport capabilities that themselves depended on oil. Combine this with the collapse of pyramiding financial schemes, and Kunstler sees saw little hope for the maintenance of a high technology, high energy, high consumption civilization. He expects this emergency to go on and on, deepening with the years.
Kunstler's picture of rapid collapse may presuppose massive industries. Small groups working locally with advanced bio- and nano-tech may be able to develop innovation and new technology that does not depend on centralized manufacture and the trucking industry, and so be less vulnerable to cascading failures.
In his novel World Made By Hand Kunstler pictures life after the emergency has shattered long-distance networks. He set his story not in a suburb but in a small town in upstate New York, similar to the towns along the Hudson River near Saratoga, where he in fact lives. In the novel, some years after the collapse, the town gradually manages to restore civic order and finds new, slower modes of community. The novel includes a "road trip" that reveals more of post-collapse America. In a second novel about the town, The Witch of Hebron, he struggles with a countryside lacking law and order.
In my Kunstleresque scenario the reporter interviews someone from what was once a suburb. He finds the people working to maintain networks and connections, though with a level of technology that would have been familiar to Jane Austen.
Thanks very much for talking with me.
It's a pleasure to see someone new, and it's not like I don't have a lot of free time. Things go slowly these days. But let me ask: How did you get here? And why did you come? If you're writing up interviews, you're not going to be able to distribute them widely.
I've been traveling with the group of traders who set up a market last night down at the park. They are going from town to town picking up local goods in one place and selling them in another. Traveling in a group is more secure, and I've been tagging along and talking to people in different towns. I'll write up the interviews and print them at a high school down the river that has an old manual printing press from their shop classes. The folks in the traveling market will distribute what I write. I think there should be a some interest in people learning how folks have been coping in other towns.
We hear what's happening nearby, but your market group is covering a larger area. In the beginning it was strange not to have wide news. People in town miss TV news in the morning or a radio beside them as they work. But we don't have electricity for that and there are no broadcasts to receive.
When news is turning back towards word-of-mouth and rumor, I thought some written interviews might be a good thing.
Is the high school with the printing press still functioning as a school?
Not really. It has some equipment which people use to train apprentices. But it's not functioning for teaching large groups. There's not enough concentrated leisure time for either teachers or students.
Most learning and training gets done one-on-one here too. When the electricity grid failed, and oil became too rare to maintain the transportation system, we had to do most things by ourselves. There are a lot of skills to be relearned and passed along.
That's what's happening at the high school.
Well, what can I tell you about our situation here?
I'd like to know more about what happened as connections fell apart. How did you remake a cohesive town?
Things were precarious, especially when law enforcement groups like the state police disappeared. It took us several years to develop enough strength in the local government to control our area. We had to develop ways for catching and punishing people who went too far. As we did that, some of the rowdier elements either adapted or left. I hear that there are bandit groups living off the land and preying on travelers along some of the lonelier roads. Not that there are a lot of travelers these days.
That's why the market people are traveling in such a large group. But didn't this town used to be linked by the railroad and highway to the big city down the river?
Yes, but we were a very distant suburb. We were built in the last surge away from the city before things fell apart. When the links to the city broke and the city became whatever it is now, we were on our own. There was still open land nearby so we could begin to grow food. We're still learning how to do that well. At the beginning of the breakup there wasn't any center to our area. We had been built in the standard pattern of scattered housing with occasional malls. When things collapsed we had to create a center. A furniture store and restaurant in a strip mall were about the right size and had chairs and tables. People began to meet there. So when we managed to reestablish something like a police force, and something like a clinic, and something like a farmers market, they all ended up at that one location. It became a kind of City Hall. Houses nearby became safer and more convenient. People began to cluster there. The big suburban houses got cut up into smaller apartments so that people could share repair and maintenance. Folks began to move in from farther out. Then people began to mine those empty houses for materials. There hasn't been any new building, just a few additions, and lots of sheds.
Has your population remained about the same?
That's hard to say because before the breakup our area shaded off into other suburbs. Some of them disintegrated, and some developed their own centers and contracted in the way that we've done. So our population became more defined and, yes, it's gone down some since then. Not from people moving away so much as from the lack of old-fashioned medical services. People die sooner and more children don't survive.
But who is growing food?
Food is more locally produced than it used to be when trucks could move it around. But we still have the river. We still get some food by boat from further out, but most is locally grown from where old suburban towns have disappeared back into farmland. We have a network of smaller centers with more open space between them.
Has one of the towns developed into a larger center that smaller towns relate to?
We hear that that has happened downriver toward the city. But it's not happened out here.
Our traveling market was nearer the city several weeks ago, and the we did find several of the old suburbs that were functioning as market towns for others nearby. But the distances between them were fairly short.
Out here we are pretty much limited to where we can go on foot or with a cart. We do still have a few bicycles in running order. But they get more difficult to use as the roads deteriorate and tires wear out. After years of no maintenance, the road surfaces get a little rough.
Have you found that metal is your most difficult resource?
There's lots of metal around to be mined out of old buildings and cars. But it's difficult to rework. If it can be bent and hammered into shape that's fine. Any work that would require really high temperatures can't be done here.
So can your bicycles be repaired?
Only as long as we can cannibalize from older bikes. There were a lot of them in the suburb so we do have materials. And there were a lot of other wheels available on toy wagons and tricycles and garden equipment. So we have lots of rolling devices. Local transport is pretty good as long as we pull it ourselves, and as long as our roads and paths are okay. I see that your group of traders brought horses with them.
They use them to pull the wagons and they're selling them, so I wouldn't be surprised if more appear here and begin to multiply. That may increase your range of travel, but the roads are bad. Riding on horseback is fine but pulling the market carts is difficult.
Still, your group is getting around. They are talking about what they've seen as they travel.
The people who organized the group think such markets will become a substitute for the old instant communication networks. Like it was centuries ago.
Your group is bringing goods from hundreds of miles away, as well as rumor and gossip. Everything has slowed down, but there are still some connections.
I'm not sure you can call it "news" when it's not so new, but it is information about what's happening elsewhere, at least out a couple hundred miles. The hope is that over time other traveling groups will meet one another and bring farther and maybe more reliable news.
What we are most eager to hear is ways to do things that have been devised in other towns.
I think your local beer will loosen tongues about that. It's a question whether or not our group will try to sell such information or just relay it for free. I don't know how it will work out but at the moment there's a lot of free talk, which is a way of attracting people to the market. On the other hand since our group is probably the biggest excitement in months, we don't really need to have special attractions to bring people in.
We need a lot of effort to maintain connections. As long as we can keep information and goods flowing we might be able to maintain a larger economy even when the transportation for goods is slow. We're reduced to mail carried by couriers, still we can stay connected if there's enough security for travel. Back in the Renaissance the Italian city states managed international enterprises using private mail and couriers. I think over time we're going to see organizations with distant offices, something like the old Medici and other family organizations, or along the lines of the old Chinese trading families. We'll work at communication.
You mean we don't really need oil?
We need transportation and communication. In the Renaissance they burned wood and we can do that forever. There's more forests now and wood's a renewable resource. Eventually we'll have sailing ships; they're slower than airplanes but they can reach Asia and Europe. Transporting goods on land is the bigger problem. I think we can keep things connected, though the pace will be slower.
That slower pace allows more time for local communities to organize; there are fewer shocks and novelties coming in from outside. But I hope there's still enough to keep things from becoming totally rigid.
Maybe the slower connections can be better than the old avalanche of information and goods. I don't know; I still miss it. But if we can keep connection and information and goods flowing, things will not fall apart into little isolated localities.
But can you avoid conflicts? Those Italian Renaissance city states didn't get along with one another so well.
At the moment people are cooperating but I agree that in a while there will be tensions over resources, and maybe down the line competition for influence. But our economy isn't that the point where different localities have enough surplus that they can compete for influence elsewhere. And people seem to get along, perhaps because they're still in shock even after these years. In twenty years it may be different when there is a generation that doesn't remember the old ways and begins jockeying for influence over and against other towns.
The self-sufficient agriculturally secure small town may seem more appealing than a dull suburb, and it was people's primary mode of existence for millennia. But people left those small towns and monocultural localities, which may seem retrospectively a golden age because their internal struggles and needs have been forgotten. The resilient local communities that we should be forming need to be aware of their own internal complexities and maintain wide external connections. One challenge will be to reinvent what it means to live within a locality or a bioregion or a city while having a horizon that does not stop at its borders and does not demonize the others beyond the border or within our community or within ourselves.
All the scenarios here describe combining local resilience with communication, connection, and trade. If there are shortages and blockages, wide networks can function with slower transit times. Resilient local communities could maintain internal connections while using slower connections to distant points. Networks can be reformed into more hierarchical systems with information and goods passed up the tree and then from higher up nodes to other trees. The connections might devolve to earlier levels of technology, but they could survive.
It would be worth the effort to maintain an Internet-style rapid communications network that could keep people's horizons wider even if the transport of goods was slow and delayed. If it was not possible to keep up wide bandwidth long-distance communication, then long-distance might be handled as it was in the networks formed by ham radio, where communications were bundled up for once a day or once a week delivery, and passed along from one relay to another. We are used to such a rhythm of communication in the postal system. If at least occasional electric power was available, and if electronic equipment could be maintained, the internet might survive slowed down to a daily or weekly arrival, though it would no longer be pervasive. Constant availability and easy research would not be possible, but slow networks of far-flung contacts could remain. Crowd-sourced social intelligence would not be possible with such slow links. If electricity and repair grew difficult, communications would fall back toward local radio and then to paper and mail.
If travel devolved to horse and buggies, remember that Jane Austen's England did manage a considerable economy and a growing empire. Even in Kunstler's World Made by Hand, by the end of the story the town is beginning to get involved in renewed trade by boat and wagon.
So in the worse case, with oil and electricity scarce or gone, people could still maintain wide networks. They would be slower and more hierarchical, and work in a bunched mode rather than as a constant stream of information or goods. Remember the town telegraph office, the arrival of a steamboat on the river or a freight train in a town, or a traveling market that shows up with goods from far away.
(Continue to Scenarios: Disturbances)