Soon, we’ll have little choice but to face reality

When I was young and idealistic, I knew a couple of things that I later forgot or repressed. One of them was that a Christian couldn’t be unequivocally happy about an economic system built on the human vice of acquisitiveness together with borrowing. Another was that natural resources were limited.

I eventually reached a truce with capitalism on the basis that “it works.” Julian Simon convinced me that Paul Ehrlich was profoundly wrong and that human ingenuity (“The Ultimate Resource” in a book by that title) rendered the limits of natural resources largely irrelevant. Fat, happy and stupid, here I come!

Of late, I’ve come to think that I don’t know if “Capitalism works,” because we have an elaborate game of corporate welfare operating under that name, and it has been so all my life. I’m convinced that an economy that requires proletarians to borrow, borrow, borrow to shore up “the Consumer sector” is sick, perverse — even wicked. The growing disparity between rich and poor and the economic collapse of a few years ago — especially the bailout of “too big to fail” — leaves me wondering what’s in the water to keep blood from the streets. (Don’t try to stop me; I’m on a rant.)

And the suburban sprawl, and getting in the car to do anything, that formerly seemed so natural? Insane. We’re running out of oil (natural resources are limited), and Julian Simon’s resourceful developer of some cunning alternative hasn’t appeared (maybe she was aborted, but that’s another topic).

On the merits of living in walkable cities, the late Richard John Neuhaus was my protoevangelist. This man, who I had come to admire since “The Naked Public Square,” revealed that he loved New York City and was thrilled to be living there again. For decades, I had seen big cities as places where bumpkins like me went to anonymously carouse, carry on and forget God. We might be forced to go there on business, but the Siren Song of vice had the refrain “Nobody you know will know, Nobody sees, C’mon, let me show you a real good time.”

But Neuhaus gave me the little epiphany that the vibrant and vital big cities are aggregates of hundreds of vital vibrant neighborhoods where people actually meet on foot at the grocery or cleaners, and where he knew more of his neighbors than I did (or do). Now that my chin is off the floor a decade or two, and I’ve got a few visits there, I’ll say it: I love Manhattan. I would like living there (though it’s late in life to thing seriously of it). I’d even move to downtown Lafayette and walk to work if it was up to me (but my better half’s not ready for that).

So for the foreseeable future, whatever happens generally in the economic realm and in consumer credit, I think “peak oil” is going to require changes — rapid or catastrophically rapid — in our “built environment.” We need walkable cities, public transportation, and more freight traveling by rail (“500 ton-miles per gallon” is pretty compelling). It wasn’t necessarily a conspiracy, but government policy has promoted the opposite of each of these for most of my lifetime if not all of it. That must change, but the young are already leading the charge, and a friend of mine who works a lot with Seniors (as do I) mentioned emerging living arrangements for seniors, with services within walking distance, that sounded semi-urbanist in inspiration (though they lack the mixing of the generations that I think we really need).

I’m encouraged that I’m not alone in these convictions. Indeed, I didn’t rediscover these truths without some goading from people that got there (or back there) first.

If you’re interested, I recommend: