Thursday, February 3, 2011

Descent, pt. 1


Two-and-a-half years ago, right around the time I started Just Enough Craig, I rid myself of my car. This also happened to be almost to the day the point at which U.S. gas prices hit their all-time high, just over $4 per gallon on average.

There are different ways at looking at this decision. On one hand, I shrewdly unloaded my car at the peak of the short-lived panic-buying of smaller cars and received more for my banged-up, modest four-cylinder than it was worth. On the other hand, there's the view that I myself panicked and jumped onto the car-free bandwagon right before lower gas prices were on the way. Of course, I look at my switch as a lifestyle decision, one in which I improved the quality of my life by excluding myself the possibility of using an automobile for short trips, an exclusion I later undid by dating Laura, who owns a car and doesn't share my love of the bicycle, though I'll credit her with making the honest effort.

In any case, I still don't know what to make of the gas-price bubble of the summer of 2008 and how much to attribute its cause to speculation versus supply-and-demand versus some other, third reason. However, the gas-price bubble was the catalyst that led me to asking, “What's going on with oil? What's going on with the economy?”, and simultaneously uncovering both revelation and confusion in my attempt to answer those questions.

Clear skies with a chance of water shortage

Laura likes it hot, preferably somewhere in the triple digits, which, converted to Fahrenheit, is really, really hot indeed.

I like it hot, too. Though as I age, a year doesn't seem nearly as long a duration as it once did, and I more and more think of the annual cycle through winter weather as an opportunity. I'm not even really sure what I mean by that, only that today while I write this blog post it's bitterly cold by Phoenix standards but that in the long run, the cold makes no dent in my overall happiness. Longer, warmer days are on their way, as they always are this time of year, and I'll enjoy each season as they pass. All two of them.

Given the opportunity, I think I could be happy spending the rest of my life in much the same way I spend each day now: spending quality time with Laura, riding my bicycles and training for triathlons, hiking, camping, writing software, reading books, learning, eating oatmeal, and always not quite allocating enough time for writing. Living in Phoenix gives a person the feeling that one can spend the rest of one's life with each day being just like the previous one. I think that feeling stems in part from the weather and how most days ostensibly look the same here, with their wide blue skies and windless calm. With each day looking like the previous one, it begins to feel like the whole world doesn't change all that much.

But, of course, that isn't true. The history books provide me my first hint how slow change multiplied by the persistence of time leads to big change, often with no reverse gear once that change arrives. In addition to the history books, there are other, worrying signs. For example, Phoenix has no long-term plan for dealing with a water shortage. One might think this would be a critical issue for a metropolis of four million people in the midst of the desert, and it is. The city has invested a lot of resources into doing what it can and has done on the whole an amazingly good job. But water issues in the desert appear to be fundamentally hard problems to solve.

While much of the rest of the state is depleting aquifers to make up for inadequate surface water and are thus surely on their way to harder times, Phoenix is more sustainable in that it relies upon perennial snow melt flowing down to us from the mountains to the north. But Phoenix faces the show-stopper of drought. Snow melt varies from year to year, and Phoenix's reservoirs, from what I understand, can handle no more than one or two years of severe drought before—before what, exactly? There's no plan to deal with that.

An appetite for worry

There's also the general eeriness of living in a sprawling metropolis in the middle of desert. Most food must be trucked in (or shipped and trucked in) over hundreds or thousands of miles. Phoenix is not and cannot be self-sufficient in food production, not at anywhere near its current population level, not with the aforementioned water shortage issue serving as our Sword of Damocles. There's no fallback plan for people in this city should commerce itself go through a few lean years, like if rising energy prices (or energy's flat-out unavailability) make the shipping of food over long distances cost-prohibitive.

Undoubtedly, what I've written will impress upon most people no certainty other than that I worry too much. And maybe they're right. It's just that before I decide to settle down and grow some deep roots into the community around me, I'd like to know that the likely problems the region will face can be weathered with something other than exodus. Perhaps I've got Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath too much on my mind these days. I finished reading it only a few days ago. It's an amazing, gripping story, especially considering that it's set in our very own nation just three or four generations ago. Slow changes multiplied by the persistence of time can produce big changes, indeed. Perhaps the slow change that's been creeping up on us since World War 2 is our increasing belief in our own infallibility.

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