ADAMS, Mass . — Three personally cheerful authors delivered nonetheless sobering messages on Sunday about the state of the planet – expressing deep concern that we are using up resources seemingly still oblivious to the need for shared sacrifice necessary to prevent profound changes in living standards.
The authors were summoned to the top of Massachusetts’ highest peak, the 3,491-foot Mount Greylock, for a 90-minute discussion with an editor of Orion Magazine. It drew more than 60 people on a clear, hot summer evening. Orion, published by a non-profit foundation and focusing on “nature, culture and place,” is based in Great Barrington. It carries no advertising. All three authors have current articles in Orion.
“The future of small, walkable cities looks pretty bright to me,” said Charles C. Mann, author of the book 1493 and the forthcoming 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Mann, who lives in Amherst, is also a consultant to the state on managing the Mount Greylock State Reservation. He said he is seeking to spearhead formation of a "Friends of Mount Greylock" group to lobby for more support for the 12,500-acre state park. Mann's current Orion article is "The Dawn of the Homogenocene."
The whole premise behind the Interstate highway system is “ridiculous,” declared Ginger Strand, an Orion contributing editor who is working on a book about America’s love-affair with roads and cars. “If there is a future for the car it’s probably going to be electric, but the more I think about that, the more I wonder. We still have to generate all that power somehow.”
Author James Howard Kunstler dismissed the idea that technology advances will someone prevent our world oil consumption from overtaking supply without profound disruption. “I’m supremely confident we’re not going to have electric cars . . . we are going to be dragged kicking-and-screaming from motoring,” he said, adding: “I’m writing a book now about wishful thinking in technology because this is a bunny hole we are going up.”
Kunstler, author of the book The Long Emergency, (and the article, "Back to the Future") predicted skyscrapers will become obsolete liabilities and big cities “will contract substantially.” Smaller cities with navigable an clean water will be revitalized, he added. He said we are entering a period of crisis in both resources and capital.
In talked among each other, with Orion Editor Jennifer Sahn, and with audience members, the writing trio appeared somewhat in dispair about how the United States would achieve changes in social and political policies that might slow down increasing resource consumption
Strand told a story about a town she had once written about that, a century ago, powered the town’s electric grid with a small water-powered generating station in the middle of town. In winter when the river water slowed to a trickle because of ice, townsfolks accepted the necessity to go a day without electricity to power their heating furnaces. No one grumbled about it, Strand said because they could see the problem clearly, saw it was temporary, predictable and manageable, and the loss was equally shared.
Her message: Get ready for more such decisions, which she said may be easier to reach if those affected have a shared sense of community.
Kunstler spoke of the world needing to “take a time out from this idea of progress” as defined by continuous economic growth.
Strand added: “But we can continue to hold onto the idea of making the world better.”
In response to an audience-member’s question, Kunstler said he thought it is “disgraceful” how poorly The New York Times – as a proxy for traditional media – has covered the issue of climate change and energy policy. “They should be ashamed of themselves,” he said, without elaborating on specific covering problems or improvement suggestions.
Strand said she was unsure that information technology such as the Internet and mobile devices is improving our quality of life. Kuntsler said network technology is producing diminishing results and it “destroys time.”
“The climate-change discussion is exhausting,” said Strand. “No one is talking about it.” Speaking with this blogger after the formal discussion, Strand express optimism that the “millennial” generation is more accustomed to thinking of resource-depletion as a given and may be more billing to adapt than older people.
“I think this is a pretty demoralized, discouraged nation,” said Kuntsler, pointing to a nation saddled with personal and national debt which he fears will make it impossible to repair infrastructure as it ages. “We are in danger of having a permanent class of losers, who are ashamed of not being able to support the family.”
Strand used the example of the Interstate highway system in a positive way. She noted it largely displaced over 50 years the system of “interurban” light-rail networks that ran within and among U.S. cities. If that feat was possible, she said, it should be equally as possible to restore a focus on rail transit.
Questioner Sam Smith, of Williamstown, estimated that roughly half the world’s population owns no land or significant property and he wondered how they would be included in the political calculus over sharing world resources. The authors offered no ready answer.
Northern Berkshire Transition helped promote Sunday’s event.
(Update: 5:05 p.m. 07-18-11; corrected misspelling of Kunstler' s name)