Housing, Sailing Vessels, Survival…

In the January/February 2007 issue of Orion, James Howard Kunstler reminded us of the urgent challenges that face our country as we move into an uncertain and energy-scarce future (see Kunstler’s essay here). At the end of the article, the Orion editors asked you, our readers, to tell us about how you are moving forward to meet these challenges. We want to know what steps you are taking to forge healthy and durable lives and communities, to make other arrangements. Below are a few of the first stories of action, vision, and hope we have received in response.

Quite a few readers of the article contributed to a very lively online conversation about the article.

Keep them coming! Send your submissions — five hundred words or fewer — to Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or to moa@orionsociety.org. We look forward to sharing them here, in Orion‘s newest department.

Housing is a Human Right

James Howard Kunstler’s grim description of energy-starved Americans can make one feel a bit panicky. But I think we need to use a framework of hope and commit to small steps that make a difference. I direct a feminist affordable housing organization, homeWORD, known as an innovative developer that models a holistic approach to building housing and communities.

HomeWORD’s latest project, Orchard Gardens, encapsulates a vision for local, sustainable development. We know that our small valley in Missoula, Montana, is limited and population growth is eating up our valuable agricultural land and open space. The Orchard Gardens site offers homeWORD an opportunity to demonstrate clustered, dense development that not only provides thirty-five units of affordable rental housing, but also provides two acres of land for farming, an orchard, and a bike and pedestrian path that connects the neighborhood to downtown.

Orchard Gardens has ground source heat, solar hot water, solar panels, on-demand water heaters, heat recovery ventilation, increased insulation, and high efficiency windows. However, our responsibilities and vision extend beyond energy and resource efficiency, water conservation, and healthy indoor air environment. Instead of buying wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and shipped over long distances, we negotiated with a local forester to supply the project with sustainable lumber. He, in turn, took the wood to our local lumber mill. Furthermore, we collected the scrap wood and used it to make wood shingles. Through creative partnerships, we supported other nonprofits, job training for persons with disabilities, and moderate-income households that were remodeling their homes. The shingles and local lumber, called Good Wood, are now being sold at Home Resource, a salvaged materials nonprofit.

Our affordable housing is easy to replicate and reduces car dependence, enhances food security, conserves precious resources, and supports the local economy while demonstrating that there is a way within our everyday lives to slow greenhouse gas emissions. It may not look different, but it makes a huge difference.

Housing is a human right, and our society has the knowledge and expertise to reduce our impact on the Earth by planning and designing smarter buildings. It just takes some innovative planning and vision.

Missoula, Montana

We’ll Need Sailing Vessels

About a year ago, I decided to try to make some positive changes in my life, and, if possible, around me as well. And so I became interested in sailboats. Sailboats of the serious, ocean-going variety are either a very extravagant hobby or a really cheap way to live and travel. Few people can afford to own real estate, but most people can afford to own a boat, provided they live on it. Even an expensive marina like mine (Constitution Marina in Boston) is cheaper than the cheapest studio apartment I can find within bicycling distance of my job.

A sailboat is a house that moves with you wherever you go, that you can own free and clear, that you can maintain and even build yourself. If you live and travel on a boat, owning a car becomes impractical. You can’t put a car on a boat, so you ride a bicycle instead. So there is one large category of expense gone. No rent or mortgage (a marina slip is rent of a sort — cheap rent), so there’s another large expense gone. Boats require more or less constant maintenance, and sailing is quite a lot of exercise, and so with that and all the bicycling you become physically fit, and your medical expenses go down as well. Lastly, the amount of storage space on a boat is limited, so it’s just not possible to spend money accumulating useless junk.

Sailing vessels predate industrialization by many centuries, and they will be around long after industrialization has run its course. Sailors and their ships run on food and water and wind — all renewable. Sailboats can be made from renewable materials as well: wood, hemp, flax, and pitch. The culture of sailing is rich, ancient, and largely intact. It is also a culture that fosters competence, fitness, self-reliance, and courage, which are all sadly missing from the world we see around us. If we want to make it to the future, we’ll need sailing vessels.

The trends that will once again make sailing a viable form of transportation are already in place but, for the sake of the argument, let us think a few years forward. Suppose it’s 2010, and you want to travel up or down either coast. You might consider driving, but gas is now very expensive and often hard to find. Also, the price of asphalt has gone through the roof, so the roads are full of potholes. You might consider taking a train, but Amtrak has been largely shut down because the country can’t afford it. And you might consider flying, but ticket prices have been driven up by the cost of kerosene; plus there is a new terror scare due to intelligence reports of a plan involving elderly al-Qaeda members with exploding dentures, so they make you check everything, including your false teeth.

Then you find out about the Sail Transportation Network. You go to the STN website and find several boats planning the passage you intend to make. You go look at the boats, interview the skippers, and decide on one. You then go back to the website and submit payment for STN’s finder’s fee. On the day of departure, you simply show up at the dock. STN has already provisioned the boat for the passage. You come aboard and sail off. If you are so inclined, you can take part in various quintessential sailing activities, such as baking bread, cooking stew, mixing drinks, and keeping a lookout.

The Sail Transportation Network is just a concept at the moment, but I remain reasonably assured that there are no legal or technical obstacles to making it work.

Boston, Massachusetts

Survival Is Not Enough

The root cellar is loaded with potatoes and beets. The woodshed is packed. Thousand-pound slabs of antlered protein walk through the yard all winter. An abscessed tooth would be a problem, but when the shit hits the fan, this is about as far from the fan as a body can get. I’ll be hurting for fruit. Otherwise, living a quasi-subsistence life in remote Alaska is great preparation for what James Howard Kunstler calls “the long emergency.”

But survival is not enough. I want my neighbors, my friends in cities, my daughter (wherever she ends up) to flourish, to find meaning in the challenge of a changing world. As I try and anticipate an uncertain, perhaps violent future, I find myself studying the horrors of history.

Viktor Frankl survived the worst of it. While imprisoned in Germany he was stripped to naked existence. He writes of the daily, predawn forced march to a work site. In formation with fellow prisoners he walked on swollen, frozen feet, stumbling in the dark over stones and through puddles. When he fell the guards beat him with rifle butts. He pushed aside the grim reality with thoughts of his wife. He became transfixed as he “understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” Frankl’s ability to find meaning, even moments of bliss, in the midst of such hardship allowed him to be a source of strength for fellow prisoners.

Whether or not the radical predictions for the end of oil come to pass, I see no reason not to prepare. I’m teaching my three-year-old daughter to cultivate potatoes and cure fish. She’s reminding her forty-year-old dad that the world beyond the news is bursting with beauty. This fall a flock of cranes passed over as we harvested spuds. Linnea and I dropped our shovels, lay back in the wet grass, and stared in silence until the last chortling bird winged beyond the horizon. Last night Linnea and I tromped through winter moonlight to get potatoes from the root cellar. On the way back she gathered snow sparkles in her mittened hands. I may know how to survive, but she knows how to flourish.

The future has always been terrifying: bubonic plague, atomic bombs, climate upheaval, collapse of the American empire. We focus on survival and forget to prepare to die. The man who knows how to die, say the Buddhists, knows how to live. In the end, however it comes, a psyche filled with beauty might be what we most need.

Gustavus, Alaska