There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you appreciate a good park.
During the lockdown parks in Gainesville, and around the nation, were well used indeed.
“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” Bridget Marquis, of Civic Commons, tells City Lab regarding the surge in park use in this time of coronavirus.
Unfortunately, she adds, “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”
She might well be talking about Sweetwater Branch Park.
Sweetwater Branch Park is a three block stretch of trees and creek that borders downtown on the west and the Bed and Breakfast District on the east. Its neighbors include the public library, the Matheson Museum and historic Matheson House and the Thelma Bolton Center.
One might consider this oasis of green amid so much asphalt and concrete an invaluable public asset. You might imagine Sweetwater Branch regularly playing host to, say, Shakespeare in the park, paint-outs to showcase local artists, ARTSPEAKS poetry readings, local history reenactments, used book sales to benefit the library…activities that would lure visitors to spend money downtown.
And there is this: Sweetwater Branch terminates at SE 4th Ave. The only thing between it and Depot Park is two blocks of GRU property that the city wants to redevelop into the Power District. Unearthing the long-buried stretch of creek on that property would make it possible to create a greenway extending from Depot Park to University Avenue and perhaps beyond.
But judging from its stewardship, here’s what the City of Gainesville seems to consider Sweetwater Branch Park’s “highest and best” use: Wasted space.
Much of Sweetwater Branch is hidden under a thick cloak of invasive vegetation. This makes convenient cover for enterprising, um, homesteaders who rig shelters along the creek.
Some nearby residents won’t use the park for fear of aggressive panhandling. The staff at the Matheson knows all about the squatters who sleep in nearby bushes and leave piles of garbage strewn in their wake.
It’s hard to believe that the same city that created Depot Park as an activity-intensive people magnet is content to allow Sweetwater Branch, downtown’s green heart, to languish in neglect and disuse.
This should be unacceptable to downtown business owners who are struggling to attract customers post-virus. To the B&B proprietors who want their guests to enjoy the grace and beauty of “old” Gainesville. To library patrons and museum visitors. To residents who wish to use their park for recreation and reflection without being harassed.
Let me be clear. It isn’t street people who are ruining the Sweetwater Branch experience. They have simply claimed a park that the city doesn’t seem to have much use for.
The responsibility must fall squarely on a bureaucracy that apparently can’t be bothered to properly maintain and program a park that lies just one block away from City Hall.
Cynthia A Bowen, president of the American Planning Association, writes that downtown parks “are the essential places for play in the live/work/play environment that cities across the country are striving to provide. As a result, people expect more from our parks. They must now be green and provide relaxation, as well as offer entertainment, social interaction, communication and unique experiences.”
A city that aspires to lure residents and businesses alike back to Gainesville’s historic center simply cannot allow its downtown park to fall so woefully short of expectations.
This is Sweetwater Branch Park. Other than the Duck Pond, it is the longest stretch of Sweetwater Branch Creek still accessible to the public. It is Gainesville’s downtown park.
2. It’s not a big park. Just a few blocks of graceful trees and gently flowing water.
Still, it is the largest area of green space remaining in downtown Gainesville. A tiny oasis of nature in an area that has more than its share of concrete and asphalt.
It is also strategically located. It is bordered on the west by the downtown entertainment district and on the east by Gainesville’s Bed & Breakfast District. Its neighbors include the Matheson Museum and the historic Matheson House, the public library headquarters and the Thelma A. Bolton Center.
Anyone who knows downtown redevelopment understands the strategic importance of a green park to the heart of a densely developed city. If you are trying to convince people to live, work and play downtown, they are going to want a park in which to stroll, run and contemplate nature’s beauty and serenity.
And yet Sweetwater Branch may be one of the most underused parks in Gainesville. The city’s Parks and Recreation Staff schedule virtually no events there. Strollers, runners or dog walkers are seldom seen in appreciable numbers.
Which is not to suggest that there are no signs of use, or abuse, of Sweetwater Branch. Indeed there are many such signs. If you talk to people in the neighborhood about why they don’t use Sweetwater Branch Park they are likely to cite public safety concerns and aggressive panhandling.
Sweetwater Branch once ran free and clear through the historic center of Gainesville.
But over the years, in the name of progress, the creek was ditched and diverted and much of it was buried as a inconvenience to development.
To the point that, today, Sweetwater Branch Park remains one of the longest relatively undisturbed portions of the creek still visible and still accessible to the public.
Unfortunately, much of the creek in the park is overgrown with invasive plants, silted up and strewn with broken bits of concrete and debris. It is a creek under stress. A creek that is less an attractive water feature than a partially hidden eyesore.
A downtown park should be a beehive of activity.
Sweetwater Branch Park could be a center for cultural events that would create an economic benefit for all of downtown: Shakespeare in the park, a showcase for Gainesville’s history, used book sales to benefit the library, Paint-outs to showcase local artists.
The possibilities are endless.
But first the city must exercise responsible stewardship over the park.
And neighbors, surrounding businesses and other stakeholders must take ownership of “their” park and demand that neglect of this most abused natural asset stop.
About her daughter Lily’s grim future. About the dead chicks they encountered
during a Girl Scout creek cleanup. About an Everglades awash in salt water.
And the rising sea.
“Poor Florida,” Ange frets.”
“Boca Raton” is a disturbing new short story by Gainesville author Lauren Groff, who chalks the title down to her own bouts with insomnia.
“In my night-terrors, when I can’t sleep, I look at maps of sea-level models and Boca is always submerged.”
Her story is part of an Amazon e-book collection called “Warmer.” Short fiction by noted authors focusing on the very non-fictional issue of climate change.
Groff’s contribution is a grim read that had its genesis in a particularly grim image. “I couldn’t exorcise the photograph I’d seen of the outline of dead baby birds whose parents had fed them plastic,” Groff said, “and sometimes I try to put images in fiction to get them out of my head.”
By putting it in our heads.
Artists deal with images in creative ways. And perhaps it says something about the times we live in that while many politicians studiously ignore climate change, artists are taking up the cause.
Currently at the Harn Museum is an exhibit titled “The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene,” the works of 45 international artists keyed on the theory that human-induced alteration of the Earth’s environment is ushering in a new geological epoch.
“We live in a world of imminent extinctions, runaway climate change and the depletion of biodiversity and resources,” explains the Harn’s web site. “Florida is one of the most environmentally vulnerable locations worldwide, making” the exhibit “especially relevant.”
Artists rush in where politicians fear to tread.
Recently I had a conversation with Xavier Cortada, identified by the New York Times as one of a dozen prominent artists who have taken on climate change.
And for good reason. Cortada lives and works in Miami, the American city most vulnerable to sea rise.
Cortada came to Gainesville a few years ago with his “Moving Water” exhibit, which called attention to the drastic damage already being done to our very wet state. During a trip to Antarctica, he collected ice samples taken by scientists there and used the melt water to produce a series of paintings about vanishing glaciers.
“We need to stop worrying about the color of our homes or how tall the grass is and instead worry about what’s going to happen once the sea rises,” he said.
Participating residents in the Village of Pinecrest, are displaying watercolor lawn signs painted by Cortada, also using his Antarctic melt water. Every sign depicts precisely how high sea levels must rise before a given yard will be underwater.
“I wanted the invisible to be visible,” he said. “It’s a way to help us think about and understand our flat topography.
“Miami is a perfect canvas on which to have that conversation,” he said. “Even when the conversation is hard to have.”
Who knows, maybe Miami resident and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will be sufficiently moved by Underwater HOA (we’re talking real estate values here, after all) to actually have a conversation about climate change. Maybe Rubio will discuss it with Florida’s new junior U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who wouldn’t talk about it during 8 years in the governor’s mansion. Perhaps they’ll even include Florida’s new governor, Rick DeSantis, in the conversation.
Hope springs eternal, as the artists say. And Florida can’t afford many more years of climate change denial in Tallahassee or D.C.
The arts speak to us. Can they speak to the deniers?
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.
Listen, I’m not going to quibble over whether the school board paid too much for the site of a future school in Jonesville.
I won’t argue that the board broke faith earmarking money for a “someday” school that voters clearly intended to be spent rehabbing the schools we already have.
I’m not even going to take issue with the logic of laying out $3.68 million for land that won’t be used for a decade while we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is likely to cripple school district budgets for years to come.
I do question, however, school board member Rob Hyatt’s defense of the purchase on the grounds that “there will be a need for a new school on the Jonesville property within 10 years.”
I’ve got to ask, Rob:
Is it the policy of the Alachua County School District to blindly chase suburban and exurban sprawl no matter the costs?
Or is it possible that the school district is itself promoting sprawl by announcing its intention to accommodate new development wherever it goes?
We know that the availability of good schools is a major consideration when it comes to buying a home.
And we can be fairly certain that for the next 10 years, realtors looking to sell homes in Jonesville and beyond will be telling young families and parents-to-be that “new schools are on the way, so better buy now before prices go up.”
Which is a much better sales pitch than “of course, you will have to put your kids on a school bus.”
A policy paper titled “Education and Smart Growth,” makes the case that chasing growth with new schools is a recipe for fiscal and educational calamity. Among other impacts, “a new school on a distant site can act as a growth magnet, helping draw people out of older urban neighborhoods and into new subdivisions on the metropolitan fringe.
“It is well understood that school quality determines where many families will choose to locate within a region. If new schools are being built on the edge of town and they are perceived to be superior, as new schools often are, then families who can afford the move will often relocate…
“Even families without school age children are impacted as school quality has a significant influence on residential property values.”
In an article titled “School Sprawl,” planner Edward T. McMahon argues that “Construction of large schools on the outskirts of communities not only gobbles up land, it is rarely cost effective. The cost of new school construction is frequently higher than rehabilitation or building additions onto existing schools.”
One consequence of school sprawl, McMahon writes, is that “all over the country smaller, old schools are being closed in favor of bigger, new schools in far flung locations.”
Say, whatever happened to Prairie View Elementary anyway?
This community already has a well documented achievement gap that runs largely along east-west and urban-suburban lines. Continuing to build new schools to serve ever more distant wealthier and whiter suburbs will only exacerbate that gap.
And it’s not necessary. If the state of Florida has done anything over the past decade or more it has been to promote “school choice” in the form of private schools, religious-backed schools, charter schools, home schooling and more.
Parents do have a choice, and the notion that our school district is by itself capable of providing “neighborhood” schools for all regardless of location, distance or sprawl development is ultimately an exercise in fiscal and educational bankruptcy.
Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, calls suburban development a “Ponzi scheme,” wherein “the local unit of government benefits immediately from all the permit fees, utility charges, and increased tax collection…” but ultimately acquires “long-term liability for servicing and maintaining all the new infrastructure.”
“A near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation is one element of a Ponzi scheme,” he writes.
Whether the school district deliberately promotes sprawl or simply chases it the end result is the same. Board members are buying into a Ponzi scheme.
In April I was all set to give this presentation at a Bike Florida conference on bicycle tourism. But of course it got canceled due to COVID-19.
Still, I’m not one to waste a good speech so……
Could we just take a moment to talk about the real Florida please?
Because Florida is very much a state of mind.
Case in point: In 1980 I was covering the U.S. Senate race in Florida for the New York Times Florida Newspapers.
That year the campaign trail took me from Pensacola to Key West, and in the course of things I got a call from the Great Gray Lady Mother Ship in New York: AKA The New York Times.
They were sending down one of their national political reporters to do a story about the Florida race and asked me to show her around.
So I picked her up in Orlando. I don’t remember her name but right off she assured me that she knew all there was to know about Florida….having spent many a winter in Miami.
We were following Democratic hopeful Bill Gunter and our first stop was in Plant City, strawberry capital of the South.
We stopped at a diner where the produce haulers ate so Bill could press some flesh, and my guest from NY looked around in astonishment.
She said….and I am not making this up.
They’re eating grits!”
Apparently you didn’t get grits with your bagels on South Beach at that time.
Later we were on our way to Tallahassee by way of Perry, and while approaching the Osceola National Forest she was moved to remark
“Look at all those trees!”
I could have told her that developers had cut down all the trees in Miami years ago, but what was the point?
I bring that story up to relate to you Florida’s dilemma, especially but not exclusively when it comes to generating interest in bicycle tourism.
“Everybody” you meet knows all about Florida.
We are the home of Florida man, after all.
The problem is that “Everybody’s” idea of Florida starts with South Beach and ends with Disney.
What we need to do is figure out how to introduce these people to the other Florida.
You know, the real Florida.
Listen, some years ago my wife and I rode the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal trails from Pittsburgh to Georgetown in D.C.
Arriving in Pittsburgh we proceeded to get lost looking for the GAP trailhead. So I stopped a guy on a bicycle and asked directions.
We had a lovely chat and in the course of it I asked him if he had ever done any riding in Florida.
“I’d never ride in Florida,” he scowled. “It’s too damned hot.”
A few months later we had our spring tour in Lake and Polk Counties. And to this day the thing I most remember about our Orange Blossom Express tour is that temperatures were dipping down into the 30s most nights.
And this in March.
One night we ran movies in a middle school auditorium in Clermont all night long because nobody wanted to go back to their tents.
Welcome to too-hot-to-ride Florida pal!
Oh and then there was the time I put up a Bike Florida display tent during the annual Bike Virginia tour, this one in the Shenandoah Mountains.
The most common remark I got was “I won’t ride in Florida….it’s too flat.”
“Listen,” I’d tell them. “We have mountains in Florida….it’s called the wind.”
And here’s the difference between cycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway and heading south on A1A battling a ferocious Atlantic headwind.
Every now and then you get to go downhill on the Parkway,, which is a nice little break. A cruel Atlantic headwind cuts you no such slack.
So here’s the thing I found most frustrating, and most challenging, during my tenure as executive director of Bike Florida.
If you want to convince people that Florida is really a great biking state you better bring your lunch.
I have ridden the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, the southern highlands of Scotland, Ireland’s Cliffs of More and Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands.
I’ve cycled the Rockies and ridden the south rim of the Grand Canyon, toured New York’s Finger Lakes and the Erie Canal Trail.
And I’ve found all of those experiences to be remarkable in their own way.
But I’ve done some of my best and most memorable riright here in the Sunshine State.
We may not have mountains. But as Clyde Butcher will tell you, Florida’s beauty is every bit as exquisite if infinitely more subtle.
We used to have a small group tour we called the Horse Country to the Springs Tour. Through the heart of Florida’s Eden.
We took riders down lovely no-traffic country roads that wound past cracker shacks interspersed with multi-million dollar horse farms – where you’d see a for-sale sign and know that yet another tort lawyer lost his case on appeal.
We passed zebras on our way to Micanopy.
We visited Marjorie Kinnon Rawling’s cracker citrus grove in Cross Creek, where enthusiastic docents filled us in on the nitty gritty of her Bohemian life style.
We stopped outside Gainesville to walk out onto Alachua Sink to get up close and personal with Gators who were well and truly on steroids.
Listen, nothing gets that big on its own.
Arriving in High Springs we pressed on to Oleno State Park – named after a once popular gambling game because this is Florida, after all – got off our bikes, and proceeded to throw ourselves into the gently-flowing, tea-colored water of the Santa Fe River.
And as we floated there a woman from Baltimore asked me, rather nervously,
“Are there any gators in this river?”
Since I cannot tell a lie, I told her, truthfully.
“Why yes there are.”
Then I pointed to the roped line of floatation devices that sectioned off the park’s swimming area and I said.
“But they aren’t allowed to go past that line.”
I dunno, she didn’t seem all that reassured.
I have been telling this remarkable state’s unique stories – some of them near to unbelievable for those of you who may have heard of the Wakulla volcano – for my entire journalistic career.
And when I got the opportunity to be executive director of Bike Florida I thought “This is great. Now I can show cyclists from all over the world my Florida.
That secret Florida.
The Florida that isn’t defined by South Beach and Disney.
I wanted to take my cyclists to Two Egg.
And tell them about that time our Confederate governor fled there to his plantation -lto fatally shoot himself upon hearing that the South had surrendered.
I couldn’t wait to lead tours to Wewahitchka – Tupalo Honey capital of the south – by way of the primeval Dead Lakes.
I wanted to show them Ormond Beach’s Loop, past wetlands that seemed almost primeval in their graceful beauty, and then on through a massive oak-canopied road that abruptly gave way to urban river life Florida style.
I’ve taken them the Old Sugar Mill ruins in New Smyrna Beach, where folks still argue over whether the sugar plantation’s owner was murdered by his slaves or by Indians.
And you know what impressed them most about these historic ruins?
That’s right….the cement dinosaurs that are still there from back when it was called Bongoland.
Yes, another Florida roadside attraction.
We’ve taken cyclists to Bok Tower. And ridden the Canaveral National Seashore.
We’ve cycled the Talbot Islands past great undisturbed stretches of Atlantic coast that still look something like they must have looked when Jean Ribault made landfall there in 1560.
And we’ve taken cyclists to St. Marks, and told them about that time Spanish conquistadors got trapped there by Apalachee Indians
Who were not at all impressed with their muskets and horses.
BTW: That’s one of my all-time favorite Florida stories.
Those conquistadors originally landed in Tampa Bay looking for gold. So they cornered the local indigenous people and demanded “Where’s the gold?”
Whereupon said indigenous people said “We haven’t got the gold. The Apalachee do.”
Which sent the conquistadors scurrying north in the direction of Tallahassee looking for fame and fortune.
Of course the Apalachee didn’t have the gold.
What they had was a reputation for being the nastiest, meanest and most warlike tribe in the entire region.
Thereby proving my longtime contention that Florida has always been a land of confidence men. But that’s another Florida story.
Heck, the Spanish ended up having to eat their horses and cut their hides into leather strips to make rafts and then launch themselves into the Gulf of Mexico…ultimately to end up washed ashore on Galveston Island, where most were either killed or enslaved by other Indians.
Listen, we have ridden through the rabbit warren of million dollar seaside mansions on Casey Key – just to see how the other half live – and then on to Boca Grande….where they told us that we couldn’t use their “private” bike/golf cart trail because they didn’t want “our kind of bikers” in their town.
Like we were the Hell’s Angles or something.
And speaking of which we once took several hundred cyclists to Soloman’s Castle, a big house apparently made of tin foil out in the middle of nowhere Hardee County…and had the great good fortune to arrive at the same time as the Tampa Bay chapter of Dykes On Bikes.
Is this a great state or what?
Listen, I could go on and on about the Florida stories we could tell….and show…to our cyclists.
Watching the sun rise on the St. John’s River in Welaka before heading out to Mud Springs…which isn’t really all that muddy. Some say it’s called that to discourage people from going there.
Like visiting Fernandina Beach so we could sit on a bench with David Yulee the railroad barron and talk to him about that time he had to get out of town real fast in one of his trains just before union troops could nab him.
Or riding to Mexico Beach…at least before it was reduced to rubble…so we could show them what a Florida beach town looked like before the condo kings got ahold of it.
I was brimming over with stories….and places..and I was absolutely certain that cyclists would beat a path to our door for the privilege of seeing My Florida.
And I am sorry to say that, by and large, I was wrong.
I will tell you that to this day I consider my biggest failure as a professional communicator was my inability to figure out how to market the Real Florid to cyclists from up north or from out west or oversees.
I hope that the people in this room will put their heads together and figure out how to do that.
Because Florida isn’t too hot.
And Florida isn’t too flat.
And our best places to ride aren’t South Beach or Disney.
BTW: Have you noticed that Disney packages cruise ship tours with resort visits…all the better to capture a target audience and keep them spending money on Disney enterprises.
Nobody from Disney has asked me, but if they did I’d suggest that they do another kind of packaging to attract people from Germany, Italy, France and other places where cycling is a thing.
Say, five or six days in the resorts followed by a five day guided bicycle tour.
And the beauty of that is – thanks to the commitment Florida is making to connecting greenways – Disney or anybody else will soon be able to offer exclusively on-trail tours of several days length for people who would love to ride a bicycle here but are scared off by Florida’s deplorable record for killing more cyclists and pedestrians than almost any other state.
Which brings me to the other really important message I have to deliver to you who came here today to figure out how to grow bicycle tourism in Florida.
Sorry, but I need to say this because I have been writing about these basic pubic safety issues for far longer than I’ve been interested in bicycle tourism.
Florida has for too many years led the nation in the number of pedestrians and cyclists it kills.
We are killing far too many people who prefer not to drive in order to get from here to there.
On one of my very first Bike Florida tours we lost a very nice man from Arizona after a teenager near Newberry dropped his cell phone, reached down to get it, and veered into the bike lane.
So let me be clear.
Florida desperately needs to take aggressive, corrective action to save the lives of people who don’t care to encase themselves inside multi-ton steel cocoons for the singular privilege of getting from one place to another.
Call it Vision Zero. Call it traffic calming. Call it Complete Streets.
Whatever you want to call the strategy, the only thing we can call the status quo is unacceptable.
If we do not do something about that then we can kiss our bicycle tourism ambitions goodbye.
My bottom line message to all of you is simply this.
We need a strategy, a vision, a plan to get out the message that Florida is open for safe and enjoyable cycling.
We should refuse to take a back seat to corn field-rich Iowa, or lumpy North Carolina or woody Oregon or any other state when it comes to being cycle friendly.
Seriously, folks, it’s time for Florida to grow up and cycle right.
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
Turns out the social distancing thing is easy to do at Sweetwater Wetlands Preserve.
On Monday my daughter and I must have walked a couple of miles around Gainesville’s wastewater purification facility disguised as a city park…and still didn’t cover all of its vast acreage.
It looked like there were maybe a hundred others present, but the sheer size of the preserve is such that nobody seemed in danger of passing within, um, catching distance.
Keeping six feet between humans? Easy.
But 20 feet from the gators, please. Because this virus is bad enough, losing a few fingers will really ruin your day.
Listen, if you’ve got kids at home, I can’t recommend Sweetwater strongly enough. You’ll walk the energy right out of ‘em.
Only instead of just saying “keep away from the gators, children” throw in “and the people too.”
On Tuesday we practiced our social distancing skills at O’Leno State Park. Crossing the swinging bridge freaked out the dog, but he loved the trail that follows the Santa Fe River through dense woods and palmetto scrubs to that place where the river vanishes underground.
Florida’s state parks have cancelled special events, camping, pavilion rentals and such, but as of this writing they remain open for…let’s just call it wilderness therapy. Likewise some city parks are still open for day use.
Suddenly the way most of us live our daily lives has been seriously disrupted. My son, in San Francisco, is under virtual lockdown, with parole granted only for brief trips to the grocery store.
But keeping our social distance around here doesn’t have to mean 24/7 house arrest. And as it happens, we live a community that has long invested generously in wide open spaces.
If nothing else take frequent walks around your neighborhood to avoid cabin fever.
But go a bit farther afield and you can walk for miles in the San Felasco Hammock without brushing up against another human being. Ditto the Newnans Lake Loop, near Windsor. And the Susan Wright Trail stretches for nearly 5 miles through the Prairie Creek Preserve.
To name just a few local walk-in-the-woods options.
Just remember to take water and wear good shoes.
Oh, and for you gym rats suffering from withdrawal symptoms? Try doing your spinning on a real bicycle for a change.
Gainesville is a bikable city. You can get almost anywhere via mostly neighborhood streets.
And as a side benefit, research shows that cycling can help strengthen your immune system.
I hear you, you’re afraid to share the road with cars. No problem.
The Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is a world-class, car-free recreational treasure, and it’s more than a 30-mile round trip. If you’ve never been on it you’ve cheated yourself.
Look, we don’t know how long all of this social upending is going to last. And sticking as close to home as much as possible is our best recourse. That is especially true, of course, if you haven’t been feeling well or are starting to show symptoms. Stay home!
But these troubling times also present the opportunity to acquaint yourself with the best our region has to offer – wild spaces and bikable neighborhoods – without breaking the social distancing taboo.
Hey, Alachua County is where nature and culture meet, right? And while our culture may be under some stress right now, our nature beckons still.
Listen, Donald Trump’s war on Iran could save hundreds of American lives. Maybe thousands.
But not against acts reprisal or terrorism. That blood letting is likely to be terrible, and we will live to regret our strategy of promiscuous drone warfare.
But it could save lives back here on the home front.
How? Because if things really go sideways with Iran, the price of oil will likely skyrocket.
Cheap gas is killing us, and we’ve been drunk on the stuff for years.
About 40,000 Americans were slaughtered in traffic last year alone. And it is a fact that the less we pay for gas the more we drive. And the more we drive the more likely we are to kill each other.
“During hard times, or when gas prices surge, people drive less: some shift to cheaper travel modes, some just stay home,” the online news service CityLab observes. “One predictable and well-documented result of big spikes in gas prices is fewer car crashes…”
Not to mention that less driving means less climate-changing carbon emissions spewing into the atmosphere.
The Union of Concerned Scientists points out: “Our personal vehicles are a major cause of global warming…cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas.”
We’ve been fighting this forever war in the Mideast for what seems like forever now – squandering our national treasure and throwing away young American lives to keep the oil spigots flowing. It’s not honor, but slavishness that makes the bloody Saudi regime our best pal. We have pledged our allegiance to Aramco.
What does “patriotism” even mean in war time these days? The Bush administration told us to go shopping while it knocked off Iraq. And thanks to all the oil we “liberated,” too many of us went shopping for gas guzzling SUVs and pickups.
That’s not patriotism. That’s self-indulgence.
To end the forever war, the ultimate act of patriotism would be to drive less, drive smaller and drive slower. Doing so would simultaneously save lives and help stave off climate change.
What might a rational homeland security strategy look like in a post-forever war America? Well, instead of spending billions on bigger highways we would be investing in transit…and then make it free as an incentive to not drive.
Rather than subsidizing suburban sprawl – as we’ve done since World War II – we would instead redesign our cities to be more walkable and bikable. Traffic calming by design saves gas and makes us more free to get around.
Here on the home front, pedestrian deaths in cities like New York and Denver are on the rise. This despite the adoption of much-touted “Vision Zero” policies.
Does that mean Vision Zero doesn’t work? No, in Norway, Oslo saw just one traffic fatality last year, thanks to a Vision Zero plan that takes itself seriously.
“The great tragedy of the American postwar development pattern is that we’ve built a world where a productive life is only possible if we do our daily travel at truly crazy, historically unprecedented speeds,” argues strongtowns.org. “These are speeds that make doing everything by car (with the attendant risk of injury or death, to yourself or others) the unavoidable ante to participating productively in society.”
To end the forever war we need to stop playing Aramco’s game and resolve to make America a civilization that doesn’t run on cheap gas.
Growing up in the “shadow of the H Bomb” and being a teenage boy, I naturally gravitated to nuclear apocalyptic fiction.
“Fail Safe,” “Alas Babylon,” and of course “Dr. Strangelove” all conspired to feed my Cold War era paranoia.
But the most depressing “end of days” book I ever read was Nevel Shute’s “On The Beach.” It was a grinding, soul-crushing account of how the last survivors of World War III lived out their remaining days while waiting for the radiation to reach them.
“It’s not the end of the world at all,” Shute wrote. “It’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”
And then he tacked on what amounted to mankind’s eulogy: “Maybe we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this.”
Shute’s “end of the world” scenario was set in Australia. It was the globe’s last outpost of humanity after Europe, Asia and the Americas wiped each other out in a nuclear holocaust. But the prevailing winds would ultimately spare no one, not even those who watched and waited at the ends of the earth.
I haven’t thought about “On The Beach” in years. But the inferno now raging in Australia…literally driving many refugees out of their homes and onto the beach, brought it all back.
Who knew that far from being the last outpost of humanity, Australia would turn out to be one of the first at risk? That its residents would be among the first to face, not radioactive Armageddon, but rather the deadly impact of man-made global warming.
It is a desert continent, after all. And changing weather patterns appear to be converging on that already hot and dry island as surely as Shute’s imagined radioactive wave.
But Shute knew of what he spoke, even if he got the means of delivery wrong. “No, it wasn’t an accident, I didn’t say that,” one of his characters, John Paxton, explained. “It was carefully planned, down to the tiniest mechanical and emotional detail. But it was a mistake.”
Mistakes aplenty were indeed made. Because, having escaped out from under the shadow of the H bomb, we humans proceeded to spend the ensuing years and decades spewing carbon into the atmosphere. We were warned, goodness knows, but we chose to ignore the harbingers of climate change doom.
“You could have done something with newspapers,” Shute wrote. “We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault…”
No, we opted for all of the cheap luxuries and consumer goods that our disposable, petro-sodden economy could give us. And we listened as charlatans like Donald Trump assured us that environmentalists were hysterical naysayers, and that we could have jobs or a clean environment but not both.
Have you seen the photos from Australia? As bad as the fires that have been raging in the Amazon rain forests. Worse than the conflagrations that burn large swaths of California.
But, surely, those are all just acts of nature and nothing to do with the rest of us.
“A look at the current fire map shows the whole continent of Australia ringed with flame,” reports the Daily Beast. “This is the driest continent on earth, and it is now being cooked by global warming. After the driest spring on record it has had the hottest day, with average highs across the whole country above 107 degrees.”
But nothing to see here, folks. “Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said climate concerns were being stoked by ‘raving inner-city lefties.’ Australia remains heavily committed to coal-fired power stations and has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates.”
In Shute’s novel, word of the encroaching catastrophe could not compete with all of the sweet distractions of life. “The news did not trouble her particularly,” he wrote of one character, “all news was bad, like wage demands, strikes, or war, and the wise person paid no attention to it.
“What was important was that it was a bright, sunny day; her first narcissi were in bloom, and the daffodils behind them were already showing flower buds.”
Daffodils are on fire in Australia. They will burn, or perhaps drown in the rising sea levels, elsewhere in the coming years. And we will likely continue to wallow in self-interested doubt and denial.
Perhaps because, indeed, “we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this.”
“Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen,” Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, a latter day Shute, wrote in the New York Times. “The images of the fires are a cross between ‘Mad Max’ and ‘On the Beach’.”
Survivors are literally gathering “on the beach” in Australia because everything else is on fire. Will the fire next time blaze closer to home?