Friday, August 12, 2011

From the Vault: Book Club Postings

Short on time again today, so for those who have never read them, below are links and blurbs from my week long blogging stint at the Dallas Morning News from last year. I rather like what I wrote then, I need to get back to that mental state. In fact, the links to DMN's blog are rather screwy so I'll post these in full:

Battery Operated Growth Without the Battery

I always thought of myself as a relatively slow reader. In the middle of passages, I drift off into tangential daydreams spurred on by the material at hand until snapping to returning to the page only to find that I have lost my spot. Only after having been asked by Nicole Stockdale of the Morning News to participate in this year's Dallas Morning News book club did I realize that it probably was not as much me as the material. While Joel Kotkin's book The Next 100 Million is certainly a quick and easy read, a scholarly work on the past, present, and future of cities it is not. I will stick with Kostof, Rykwert, and Rybczynski.

I do find nuggets of truth scattered throughout the text such as the criticism of recent efforts to revitalize downtown areas via magic bullets. He casts the motivation to fix downtowns as wrong-headed rather than accurately portraying the actual fault-at-hand, the methods that are top-down rather than ground-up, empowered locally as an authentic outgrowth of the local citizenry. He proceeds to drown these keen insights in faulty logic and personal biases, many of which I will be explaining and deconstructing throughout the week. To be perfectly honest, I find much of the rest of the book to be murky, often self-contradictory in its logic, and in many cases downright pandering to a lay audience nervous about the future of their way of life, "it will be just the same as before, only better!"

Where the author's logic of the magical healing power of "growth" falls in on itself is that population growth constructed around a similar urban form as that of the last fifty years (the divergent path from European cities that he suggests will continue), is based on and made possible by the simple extraction and utilization of natural resources that are finite. Rather than truly answer these hard questions, he acknowledges them only to brush them off as if they are not even worthy of consideration.

It is one thing to discount peak oil. It is entirely another to misunderstand (or misrepresent) it and put it into print as a rational defense. About peak oil, he delights at those actual experts who seem to "think oil will run out." On the contrary, peak oil is not about running out of oil, as he would like you to believe. It is about the peak and eventual decline of production, that the cheap stuff is becoming increasingly difficult to locate, extract, and refine. Hear of any problems lately in the extraction of oil; say a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf?

With growing demand (because of decentralized car-oriented development and the rapid industrialization of eastern economies) and stagnant if not potentially falling rate of supply, the very thing that suburbia is constructed upon, cheap oil will no longer be able to sustain his ideal way of life. Furthermore, in my estimation water, the very basis of life itself, not oil, will be the critical resource of the 21st century, as many parts of the country are already quickly diminishing their water supplies.

The point of his book is that bigger population inherently means a bigger pie for all and magically rising standard of living, but without rapid and radical change resource, limitations could very well mean a smaller pie. These are the very real and difficult questions we are facing and to do so we must be honest with ourselves.