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March 10, 2011


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America's central political battle isn't ideological or even cultural. It's geographic. Ideology only comes into the argument late, to intellectually bolster the arguments of the suburban/exurban axis. And the culture war is merely politics by other means (to paraphrase and invert Clausewitz). It's not an accident that the energy industry underwrites so much of the right's politics. Their paradigm - intensive energy use and sprawl - may be a dead-end economic strategy but it's really all they have. And when the well runs dry? The buzzards can pick our collective bones after for all they care.

We're not going to compete with the rest of the world by overconsuming diminishing resources. To suggest our way of life isn't negotiable (as Big Oil's Dick Cheney once put it) is another way of saying we're going to hold our breath until reality meets our demands. The sheer nuttiness of their politics directly emerges from this bravado. The anti-science and anti-environmentalism of the right is, essentially, a temper tantrum disguised as tough-guy chat.

The politics of defunding rail neatly dovetails with this agenda. Limiting transportation choices so people are forced to drive and fly is a crucial part of their strategy. People who live disconnected lives in suburbs vote Republican because they don't see the intricate webs of interdependence supporting our lives. Instead, they fixate on myths like "rugged individualism" to describe themselves and their ideals. And it's here that their pathos often becomes blatant hypocrisy, as when they demand the government keep its hands off their Medicare.

A nation that is hamstrung by a false debate like this one can only tread water for so long before it drowns. We are not going to march boldly into the future by denying physical reality and its laws. Even David Brooks, the bard of suburbia, is finally recognizing this. Cities are our future if only because they buy us some time as we figure out how to live with much less. It's not going to be easy under the best of circumstances. And it will be impossible if we wallow in cornucopian wishful thinking while much higher energy costs stare point blank at us in our disbelieving faces.

Hi folks, I am up late so I just left what I dreamt at the end of the end of City Hall

Soleri nails it! The Flat Earth Society has all sorts of bizarre notions about our finding enough oil to slake our thirst. Country club/cocktail party science, maybe? The special interest folks certainly have a well-oiled bafflegab machine that's lubricated by campaign contributions and lobbyists.

My Dad was a railroader whose prescient legacy was a pretty good piggyback (trailers on rail cars) strategy that hatched about 60 years ago. Even then he told me how much more fuel efficient it was but the Rock Island railroad was slow to embrace it.

Maybe someone can 'splain how and why this happened??

Quoting Soleri, "Cities are our future if only because they buy us some time as we figure out how to live with much less." My response to that is Sustainability is a passe word the new thing is reverse growth or as I call it REVGROW. It's no longer a question if humanoids will have to inhabit other planets it's just a matter of when?
Jon I sent your article onto my my redneck republican friend that has an entire basement devoted to Americas great train systems. Be interesting to see his response

Just finished "Bradbury Speaks."
The following 1968 essay was included in the collection...
It reminded me of you when I read it Jon:

Any Friend of Trains is a Friend of Mine

And you are right Jon:

Plastic cars are a superficial palliative.
They fool only fools...

All of India wants to drive...
All of China wants to drive...
All of America wants to drive...
There is a finite amount of oil available...
And more and more cars demanding it...
So go fish on the moon...

As soon as we speed past 5 dollars a gallon for gas...
And accelerate towards 10 dollars a gallon,
Just so, and only just so...
We'll build trains and monorails with sudden urgency.
And not a silly simple second beforehand.

All that is inevitable.
America will never do the right thing ahead of time.
Without a hot crisis staring her down...
America goes no where and does nothing important...
Without a hot crisis nipping at her heels...
America is a nation of empty old talking heads...
Like George Will's....
And McCain's...
Passing fatuous gas off as learned helplessness...

That's the bad news.

The good news is:
There is an oil crisis a few turns up the road.
I can hardly wait...
But wait I must...
As there's still some cheap oil in the ground...
And to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller:
"Americans will only do the right thing,
When they have exhausted all other possibilities."

So let's just all give pause...
And room...
And let our fellow American fools...
Exhaust themselves in febrile splendor...

Drill. Fool. Drill.

The short answers:
1. Government aggressively subsidized highways and prohibitively taxed and regulated railroads through most of the 20th century, allowing trucks to take away much of the freight business. Yes, railroads like the Rock Island (CRI&P) and Pennsylvania pioneered piggyback (TOFC), but it could never undo this advantage.

2. Even when I was a child, railroads still had "less than a carload" freight operations. This brought much smaller freight into city freight stations (the Phoenix AT&SF station is still standing), where it was transferred to trucks for local delivery. Looks like a smart system now, but it was killed off. (And of course America made most things back then).

3. Railroads did themselves no favors with entrenched management and unions, although there was tremendous innovation mid-century. But it couldn't undo the government subsidizing trucks and airlines, especially with the advent of the Interstate Highway System.


Cal, I think the ethical imperative here is to gradually shrink our numbers and consumption without creating such a backlash that it does more damage than good. We don't have the luxury of much time, unfortunately, and our political process has been monkeywrenched (le mot juste) by the plutocrats. I'm not even saying there's much if any probability of a soft landing. Places like Phoenix will crash regardless of mankind's overall fate. But we have to act as if human life is still inherently good because the alternative is simply too horrifying to consider. It's going to take an agonizing amount of patience to unwind this feeding frenzy that's devouring the commons. I don't know how we do it. I just know that we must try.


I think he meant "Jawn Henry." The Norfolk & Western's failed, experimental steam turbine locomotive in, I believe, the 1950s. Welcome rail fans to Rogue Columnist.

One little objection to your Seattle Times column. I think (Emil probably agrees with me) you should retire the notion of Peak Oil being the halfway point of reserves, which is more of a rule of thumb. It's important to be precise about it. We should go back to the original definition: "Peak Oil refers to the maximum rate of the production of oil in any area under consideration, recognising that it is a finite natural resource, subject to depletion." Most people don't even have a concept of how the oil age will end. They think it will end someday, somehow; "We have 44 years of oil left." - as if oil production will suddenly stop overnight one day in the 2050s. It hasn't entered their mind that there will be a peak and subsequent long decline (possibly near-term) and that together with rising demand that will constitute a potential predicament. A lot could be gained if people knew this simple fact. "Half-way through the reserves" doesn't really tell the story.

"There are lots of people, who are living in places that are currently unsustainable, who have signaled their intention to fight to the political death to keep living they're living now. If it means melting Antarctica and bankrupting the US government so be it." I'm usually not a fan of Alex Steffen and his gizmo approaches to 'sustainability' but here he said it right.

Lots of good stuff.

Even RC got himself excited. If you post comments on your own blog is that like talking to yourself in a mirror? ( : - )

I don't blame him, I really like trains.

REVGROW, I think my wife puts that stuff on her plants. They usually don't look too good.

We need to have a discussion sometime where you are only allowed to post one word. Could be interesting.

Today marks another day that went by with us losing out on the beak/chicken feet market in China.

As I am writing this, cal should be getting stuck in the metal detector at Phx. City council.

AZREBEL, I made it and out of city hall OK. Hearing went well. I am winding up my 320 square feet of somewhat sustainable living space to head off into sajuaro land. That would be my motor home. A great improvement in spot and my life Since I unloaded that monstrosity of a house on South Mountain a few years ago.

I never understood the reasoning behind the Florida HSR line. The cities that were to be connected are among the worst in the nation for transit in city limits. I would love a Phoenix to L.A. true HSR line in order to replace the ridiculous number of flights from LAX, Burbank, etc to Sky Harbor. It seems like common sense that a route as busy as LA-PHX would be among the first to receive funding.

One big advantage is the relatively flat terrain and mostly open desert between the two metro areas. Imagine being able to ride the rail for a day trip to L.A. to catch a Lakers/Suns game, visit family, museums, friends, etc without having to get in a car! Would be fuckin' great...

With apologies for dragging an otherwise scholarly discussion down to the hormonal level of my life as a college student: the Rocky Mountain Rocket between Iowa City and Denver was the most wonderful place to find babes! It is one of the most cherished chapters in my fuzzy-cheeked past.

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