The Dog Whistle


When it comes to the topics significant to Rational Urbanism my favorite minds are those of James Howard Kunstler, Chuck Marohn, John Michael Greer, Andrés Duany, Leon Krier, and Chris Martenson. When any two of them get together for a conversation I’m hopeful that they’ll break some new ground. In the latest tete a tete among my six horsemen of the apocalypse Chris Martenson discussed a combination of the basics of the Crash Course and his new book Prosper with Chuck Marohn. 

The interview started swinging through all of the various elements of Chris Martenson’s ideology, and I was not only on board, but I could point to areas of my life I had transformed in just the ways Prosper and the Crash Course recommended. I was proud that most of these transformations were the results of decisions I had made and understandings I had come to long before I had ever heard of Mr Martenson. (There’s nothing like the anxiety of influence!) 

One of the reasons, from a psychological perspective, I find it so important to point to some level of independence from the ideology of the Crash Course is that I know where we differ, and I know where the Crash Course doesn’t lead; and that is to repopulating underutilized urban settings. Predictably, in the 33rd minute of the Strong Towns podcast Chris responds to a question about the importance of place by referencing a video he posted on the Peak Prosperity website of young men in Oakland firing guns into the air and of police fleeing the incident in fear. What he extrapolates from this is that “some places”, too risky to live in now, are only going to get worse, and that he would recommend moving away from them. 

Scale matters, and Springfield, Massachusetts is not Oakland, California. Having said that, I don’t want to besmirch Oakland either; I have no idea if neighborhoods in Oakland fall into my Rational Urbanism critique of exaggerated societal fear vis a vis American cities. To anyone in western Massachusetts (where Chris Martenson lives by the way) however, the local analog of Oakland is Springfield. 

My wife was coming to bed late the other night and was witness to an actual arrest just outside our front door. In contrast to whatever anarchic chaos Mr. Martenson sees in Oakland, here the interactions between the police and the individuals being arrested were matter-of-fact, respectful, and so quiet that they failed to awaken me though I was sleeping just 20 feet away.  That really isn’t in any way a direct response the idea that most of urban America is only worthy of abandonment, it’s just an observation. But Mr. Martenson’s claim that places like Oakland will only get more dangerous after an economic crash is, I think, much more suspect than he knows. He goes out of his way to say that this claim isn’t really a prediction or a trend extrapolation, but rather an observation, by which he clearly means that it is an obvious irrefutable fact.

But it is a prediction, (here’s my version of his prediction) and it’s probably wrong.

You see, Oakland, and in some ways parts of Springfield are already living in the post-apocalypse. Chris is saying, “if this is how people behave during the good times, imagine how they’ll respond in hard times”. Perhaps, but there is an enormous assumption embedded in that idea. It is up in the little Happy Valley that he inhabits where we have no idea how people will respond to hard times. My neighborhood has been living hand to mouth, scraping by on what could be salvaged, for more than a generation. Going without food for a few days, looking for odd jobs to get by, crashing on a friend’s couch for a few months are par for the course. Now. 

The “urban violence” Mr. Martenson references stems from an irrational failed drug policy. Change that and you change the culture almost overnight. On the other hand I can foresee the trigger fingers of the Happy Valley preppers getting just a little twitchy as their stockpiles dwindle and the gas tanks on their SUVs deplete. We’ve had crises here in my neighborhood: a tornado, a huge natural gas explosion. There was no looting, there was no chaos. Police were out in force immediately, ambulances were lined up in front of my house waiting for the flood of wounded which never came. Emergency shelters were opened but most people found shelter in the homes of friends and family. 

What happens here when gas prices go to $10 a gallon? We can all walk everywhere we need to go. What about food? Unless Chris Martenson’s predicted crisis comes just at harvest time his neighbors are not only going to be dealing with the exact same shortages as everyone else but the difference will be that my neighbors and I are sitting on all of the region’s primary infrastructure for transportation, water, power, healthcare, security, fire protection…I have a feeling our minimal needs will be met, and most people here aren’t used to having anything more than their most minimal needs met anyway. 

I know that most of my neighbors aren’t preparing for an impending status quo changing economic downturn. But they were never expecting to see the benefits of that fantasy anyway.

Look, I agree with Chris Martenson on so many things, first on defining the primary problem as being a belief in infinite growth on a finite planet, followed up with what many of the rational responses to that erroneous cultural belief should be: Get yourself in good physical, and economic condition; prepare yourself to live on much less and in ways that require much less in the way of energy; make yourself as resilient as you can. But I’m not deluded. I know that most of my neighbors aren’t aware of just how wedded to infinite growth our current economic system is. I know that they aren’t preparing for an impending status quo changing economic downturn. But they were never expecting to see the benefits of that fantasy anyway.

By contrast his neighbors, not the ones that come to his retreats and read his blog but the ones who don’t, not only have no idea about the significance of exponential growth or the “rule of 72”, but are completely bought into the myths he rails against. They’re not growing food on their 2.3 acres and they have no idea how to survive without making the 60-mile daily round trip to work and the 24-mile round trip to the grocery store and heating their 5,000 sq ft McMansion with the heating oil that gets delivered by truck. Yes, those neighbors have never exhibited any bad behaviors but, then again, they’ve never had any reason to. 

I don’t think either one of us has a monopoly on security. The truth is neither one of us knows exactly how impending changes to industrial civilization will play out on the micro scale, and maybe he knows that too, but to write off moving to pretty much any urban place with a large minority population, which the Oakland reference was clearly intended to be a dog whistle for, is both ridiculous and irresponsible. If a successful response to what is sure to come is possible it will involve the utilization of all of our preexisting resources, from man-made infrastructure to natural resources, as responsible stewards. If you think you have what it takes to move to the hinterland and become a self-reliant or nearly self-reliant farmer then by all means do so. If, however, you are less able or less desirous of that circumstance then finding a place well suited to doing more with less in an urban environment isn’t an unenlightened way to go.

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Note: earlier, a different piece from Shultis' blog was mistakenly posted. Our apologies. 

(All photos courtesy of Steven Shultis)