My friend Ken Schneider was laid to rest, more or less, yesterday. He disappeared. He drove a beat up old car deep into inaccessibility in Utah a year and three months ago. The car was found but not him. The Sheriff’s department, family and friends, dogs and helicopters couldn’t turn him up anywhere in those vast canyon lands of echoes and whispering winds. And when he disappeared he could hardly walk. He loved that country more than anywhere else. So that mystery abides and the memorial service was held with near certainty that he’s not spending the last of his days living it up in an unfamiliar distant tropical paradise where none of the ladies give him a glance and none of the drinks bring back his youth or realize his dreams of helping the rest of us. Ultimately, it looked like a graceful if strange parting, filled with different kinds of pain for family and friends for a different kind of man.
He wrote an obscure book that should have been the clarion call to save our civilization back when we still had resources availability on our side. Of course nobody wanted to be saved when they were drunk with power, fun, confidence and the sense of youthful immortality. By sheer coincidence it was published in 1971, the year oil production in the United State peaked. The quantity produced of that “black gold” stuff has been relentlessly sliding away in the US ever since, no matter how hard the oil companies try and car drivers pray. Today as we approach peak world oil production and as the era of it’s cheapness passes, so well may our opportunity to heed his ignored words.
The name of his book was “Autokind vs. Mankind.” He gave it the subtitle, “an Analysis of Tyranny, a Proposal for Rebellion, a Plan for Reconstruction.” If ever there was a relevant warning, like a doctor telling a teenager cigarettes will kill you, here it was. It’s still there, as unread as ever, now that the signs of cancer are spreading everywhere and I for one am having as much trouble sounding the warning as my friend did back when I hadn’t yet met him, back when I was waking up to the same pathetic story unfolding, the story of a society like the Easter Islanders too blinkered and deluded to see the most obvious physical threat staring them dead in the eye. For Easter Islanders it was the mania for cutting down trees until they were all dead and gone and carving absurd statues in a binge of building something to destroy most of the life on a remote Pacific island. For us it is burning out a planet’s worth of oil to build a physical infrastructure that’s suffocating the landscape and beginning to take down the climate stability and biosphere of an entire planet. You think the Pacific was big? Picture the all-embracing universe and Earth as an island floating in it.
Talk about a readable book, if you can get a slightly objective, not an excuse-making, difficult-subject-averse addict’s perspective on it. The whole fascinating history of the automobile is there in “Autokind vs. Mankind.” Did you know that they had steam-powered things called Russell carriages on the roads of England in the 1830? They were considered so
dangerous, though, they were banned in 1840 by the Court of Sessions. That’s going way back. Of the first three vehicles somewhat equivalent to cars purchased by the US Army each was “equipped so that a mule may be hitched to it, should it refuse to run.” Schneider chronicled the entire panorama of road building, invasion of asphalt into the cities and the swath of opinion swirling around and buoying up the automobile and its fortune. Said one Ladd Towel in a magazine of 1913, for example, “For genuine pleasure, health and excitement an auto is better than medicine, vacation or religion. It makes one forget he is living. It makes him feel that if he must die the auto route is best.” Said Henry Ford, with a distinct accent of sarcasm, “Our civilization – such that it is – rests on cheap and convenient power.” The history’s all there in “Autokind vs. Mankind.” Then again, as Ford is also quoted in Ken’s book, “History is bunk.” And it may actually be because this very man may well one day prove to have written its downfall.
Ken Schneider influenced me a lot, though I hadn’t seen much of him in the last 20 years. He’d given up on the problem of the city of cars, sprawl, paving and oil to turn his central attention to philosophical ramblings about democracy and humanism. Taking his earlier words to heart – a true idea is forever – and working to bring some balance back into the cities people build, I spend a couple hours every Sunday I’m in the Bay Area working on a creek daylighting project at the edge of Berkeley and Albany near the bayshore. The digging to bring the creek back from its underground tomb has long since been replaced by the less dramatic maintenance of biodiversity and a small orchard there necessitated by a constant weak assault from invasive species and lackadaisical, probably bored vandals. Mostly, it’s a great success.
Ken’s memorial was held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kensington way up Arlington Boulevard. I decided to bicycle up there from the creek as he would have approved. It’s a long way it turns out, pretty much up-hill all the way, some of it impossible to pedal on a bicycle with only three gears. So I pushed it about one quarter of the way. I passed a gas station on the way up. $3.31 per gallon for premium – on its was up again too. Yes, last of the cheap fuel is upon us. A couple blocks later where the slope had moderated enough that I could begin pedaling again, I stopped and got off.
Jesus Christ! What happened here? Blood sprayed all over the street, curb and sidewalk. I got of my bike for a moment of silence and double checking my eyes. It looked like a large balloon of blood had been hit by a car at more than 40 miles per hour. Must have been a dog. If it had been a child down at fender level it would have been cleaned up immediately by humans who can’t stand to see such reality shoved in their faces. But being just a dog…
I arrived somewhat shaken and out of breath. There is no way that place – the Unitarian Universalist Church and the whole single family home suburb extending from downtown Berkeley all the way up the hill for an hour’s worth of labored pedaling and pushing – could exist at all without that once-in-the-planet’s-lifetime gift of fossil chemicals called oil. So readily available. So easy to handle. So powerful in small doses of high concentration. $3.31 a gallon and inevitably going up and up. To think that the age that made this massive slab of asphalt and concrete possible,
all those millions, approaching a billion cars is coming to an end. To think those countless “single family houses” with their ample front, back and side yards, all their cute decorative gardens and driveways and double and triple garages can’t be maintained with “alternative” fuels and lots of Priuses or buses. One hundred years ago nothing anything like this could have existed and one hundred years in the future it will be impossible again. How much death and destruction, because of this binge of hyped up building the wrong kind of city, will there be by then?
Well, Ken Schneider knew even when people rushed to shut him up, edged him out of his job as a city planner and when editors and reviewers stonewalled the message of his book back more than 30 years ago.
In 1990 Denis Hayes delivered the keynote speech to a conference I organized with a committee of friends and colleagues. That conference was called the First International Ecocity Conference and was followed by five more, in Adelaide, Australia, 1992; Dakar, Senegal, 1996; Curitiba, Brazil, 2000; Shenzhen, China, 2002 and Bangalore, India, 2006. Denis, you may remember was chief organizer for the original Earth Day in 1970 and went on to head up the United States Solar Energy Research Institute, which was summarily dismantled by Ronald Regan.
Said Denis, how could we be winning so many environmental battles and still be losing the war? I call this the Denis Hayes Paradox. Despite progress in establishing good laws for protecting species, establishing wilderness areas, achieving higher efficiencies, better insulation, more thorough recycling and the like, we were in 1990 doing far worse than ever with the really large problems, such as climate change and erosion of biodiversity on the planet. Just as the prescient Ken Schneider hadn’t seen anything yet when ranting eloquently against the car and sprawl in 1971, so Denis Hayes hadn’t seen anything yet in terms of what we are seeing in global heating and world threat to living systems today 17 years after the First International Ecocity Conference.
The answer to the Denis Hayes Paradox is that we haven’t faced exactly what Ken Schneider had the courage to face when he was attacked frontally by everyone thinking they were in love with their cars and swamped with glorious materialism made room for by big private domains of house, den, yard and garage.
Why him? At the memorial service I learned about just how adventurous this man was, working for international aid programs, raising his kids in Africa. Go back far enough, to when he was 19 years old, and he was a gung-ho marine. After storming the hills of Okinawa against a hail of Japanese bullets, watching his comrades torn to pieces along with enemy fighters, maybe that gave him his supreme confidence; the opposition to his thinking, as compared to his body, wasn’t so bad after all.
Now days we see environmentalists clamoring over one another to buy up and subsidize the Prius and other “better” cars so we can keep driving, driving, driving. We see august institutions like the University of California at Berkeley getting massive by-offs from the oil industry (BP’s half billion dollar grant, for instance, to find biologically based “road fuels”). Now there’s a desperate effort to milk cheap energy out of the agricultural soils of America so we can keep driving and keep feeding our cars instead of our people! Now there’s a desperate effort to continue designing cities for cars instead of people! It gets down to mayors promoting changing light bulbs at Bioneers and telling their addicted constituents we are getting
green and sustainable when it is ever more obvious that all the caps and trades, all the fine tuning of the murderous infrastructure continues the pattern of delusion that gives rise to Denis Hayes’ Paradox.
We will solve this one when, and only when, we rediscover the sort of thinking in “Autokind vs. Mankind,” or maybe only when that exact book is taken seriously.